Ivankovic optimistic about plan of attack

Team China head coach Branko Ivankovic oversees training in consultation with a member of his staff. (Photo/ CHINA DAILY)

Team China head coach Branko Ivankovic oversees training in consultation with a member of his staff. (Photo/ CHINA DAILY)

New Team China head coach vows to win over fans by playing the modern way ahead of Singapore doubleheader

With a new coach at the helm and a new attacking style to be tested, the Chinese men’s soccer team is embracing upcoming World Cup qualifiers as a clean slate to restore faith in the struggling program.

Desperate to qualify for the FIFA World Cup for the first time since 2002, the men’s national program has pinned high hopes on new coach Branko Ivankovic to help rebuild the squad into continental contention and lead it out of the shadow of perpetual underachievement on the pitch and recent corruption scandals off it.

The 70-year-old Croatian has talked up his chances of pulling off the tall task, but that optimism will be tested with a pair of Asian zone World Cup qualifiers against Singapore, first away on Thursday and at home in Tianjin five days later.

“I am expecting two wins and hopefully we can win by playing in a positive way that the fans want to see. We’d like to win back fans’ support with two excellent games,” Ivankovic told China Central Television through an interpreter last week in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.

The former Iran (2002-06) and Oman (2020-24) coach admits that trying to add attacking flair, creativity and aggression to the squad will take time, largely due to the lack of quality competition and poor technical standards in the Chinese Super League, where he guided Shandong Taishan to a league title in 2010 during a 16-month stint with the club.

He insists, however, that it’s never too late to start trying.

“Since my first meeting with the players, I’ve made it clear that we need to play the modern game — that is attacking aggressively even if that comes with risks (in defense),” said Ivankovic, who successfully led Iran to the 2006 World Cup finals in Germany.

“This is how we can deliver positive performances. I believe in the training plans we have prepared and the new philosophies we are instilling. The results might not happen right away, but it’s a move in the right direction.”

Ivankovic was appointed last month to replace Serbian Aleksandar Jankovic, whose failure to secure a spot in the knockout stages of the 2024 Asian Cup during a scoreless campaign in January left morale at an all-time low and drew nationwide criticism.

The worst campaign since the team’s debut at the continental tournament in 1976 further tarnished the image of the men’s national program following a series of match-fixing and bribery scandals involving former Chinese Football Association officials and coaches undercovered by the country’s central anti-graft authorities.

Still, Ivankovic and his players are embracing the doubleheader against Singapore as a shot at redemption.

“The road to World Cup qualification will be long and arduous. We just need to focus on preparing ourselves as best we can and try to earn the respect back with our performances on the pitch,” Team China captain Zhang Linpeng said during a training camp in Shenzhen.

After spending 10 days analyzing players and preaching his tactics at the camp, Ivankovic arrived in Singapore on Monday with 26 players he handpicked based on a thorough evaluation of their CSL form.

He has managed to capture the imagination of fans by selecting a mix of young talents and familiar faces to take on Singapore, the lowest-ranked team in Group C of the second-round qualifying campaign for the 2026 finals, which will be staged in Canada, the United States and Mexico.

Returning Brazilian-born striker Ai Kesen, aka Elkeson, and his counterpart Fei Nanduo, an attacking midfielder also known as Fernando, are among the eye-catching new pieces added by Ivankovic — a sign that the Croatian will lean on China’s naturalized firepower up front more than his predecessor did.

“I am so happy and honored to return to Team China. The call-up represents trust in and recognition of my game. I will try my best to help the team win wherever I am needed,” Elkeson, who missed the Asian Cup and has just recovered from a long injury layoff, said through an interpreter.

Possessing impressive power and speed in his prime a decade ago, Elkeson now struggles to keep up with the pace on the international stage at 35, having suffered multiple injuries through his career.

The top scorer on Guangzhou Evergrande’s two-time AFC Champions League-winning squad (2013,2015) remains an asset with his touch and finesse, according to Ivankovic.

“He’s not 100 percent physically but as long as he can play, even if it’s just for 10 minutes, he will still contribute positively,” said the coach.

“Naturalized players or homegrown talent, I just picked the best available at the moment. We will focus on playing to the best of our ability with what we have now,” he added.

Team China, currently third in Group C and ranked 88th by FIFA, opened its qualifying campaign in November with a 2-1 win over Thailand on the road before losing 3-0 to South Korea at home. Straight wins over Singapore, currently ranked 156th in the world, would boost China’s hopes of bagging one of the two direct berths to the next stage of qualifying.

Team China has a favorable head-to-head record against Singapore, with 11 wins, five draws and two defeats. China won the most recent encounter between the teams — a 6-1 rout in a friendly in Tianjin in September 2013.