By Adam Jourdan
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - China's ambitions to become a global soccer power are facing a stark reality check after the national team's coach stepped down following defeats to Uzbekistan and war-torn Syria, leaving in tatters a bid to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Chinese coach Gao Hongbo resigned after a 2-0 defeat to Uzbekistan on Tuesday night in Tashkent, days after losing to Syria. The slump underlines the challenge facing President Xi Jinping, who wants China to host - and win - the World Cup.
With Xi's blessing, China had been in a bullish soccer mood. It invested billions of dollars to develop grassroots soccer academies, brought high-profile players and managers into China from overseas, and is buying into global soccer assets from Italian club Inter Milan to England's Manchester City.
Beijing wants China to compete with the best teams in the world by 2050, while investors like Inter Milan's new Chinese owner Suning Commerce Group talk about setting global soccer supply chains from clubs to media outlets and merchandising deals.
But many sports industry insiders question whether China can live up its bold ambitions.
"The massive investment in football, and in particular President Xi's personal involvement, has raised expectations to wholly unrealistic levels," said Mark Dreyer, Beijing-based founder of sports information website China Sports Insider.
China, ranked 78th in the world behind St. Kitts and Nevis and Libya, has qualified just once for the World Cup finals. That was in 2002, when the team lost all three games without scoring a goal.
"This isn't going to change for years, and no coach - foreign or otherwise - can perform the sort of miracles that would be needed, no matter what Chinese fans or President Xi might expect," Dreyer added.
Sentiment amongst Chinese fans was more one of resignation than anger on Wednesday morning, a reflection of how local supporters have long had to put up with rampant graft and low quality in the domestic game.
"Now the coach has resigned, why don't we just disband the whole team and let the FA officials go home," said one person on China's popular microblog site Sina Weibo. "Let's stop wasting taxpayers' money and use it for something more important."
Tuesday's defeat left the Chinese team at the bottom of its qualifying group, below Iran, Uzbekistan, South Korea, Syria and Qatar after the first four games in Asia's third round of qualification with six games remaining.
The state-run Global Times newspaper said the seeming prosperity of domestic football, which has seen huge sums spent on player transfers and star foreign managers, was just "a fake bubble" pumped up by "crazy capital" and imported talent.
The broader Chinese investment splurge into soccer, which has sparked up to $3 billion worth of Chinese deals for global sporting assets since the end of last year, is also facing road bumps.
China's richest man, Wang Jianlin, threw cold water over investments in overseas soccer clubs in August, saying it was tough to actually make any money. Wang's Dalian Wanda Group has a stake in Spanish club Atletico Madrid.
Chinese-owned clubs Inter Milan and Aston Villa are struggling, despite big promises by their new Chinese owners, while Chinese deals for Italian giants AC Milan and England's Hull City have been hit by question marks over financing.
Lou Yichen, a veteran soccer commentator and vice president of online broadcaster PPTV, saw a real risk that the investment boom could leave Chinese firms and clubs heavily in the red - with no guarantee of long-term success.
"Clubs themselves are getting quick results by leaning heavily on high levels of investment and paying sky-high prices (for players)," Lou said. "In the near-term at least, it's going to be hard to get this money back."
(Additional reporting by SHANGHAI newsroom. Editing by Bill Tarrant.)