BEIJING (Reuters) - China's lengthy exile from the top table of international soccer looks set to continue for at least another six years unless Gao Hongbo can deliver a major turnaround in fortunes after a miserable start to the final round of World Cup qualifying.
While moves inspired by President Xi Jinping to turn the country into a dominant player in the sports marketing sector continue apace, and the cash-rich club scene flourishes, there has been no upturn for the national team.
Xi's "three wishes" for Chinese soccer are that the country qualifies for another World Cup after their first and only appearance in 2002, host a World Cup and eventually win one.
After three matches out of 10 in the final round of Asian qualification for the 2018 finals, however, China have just one point from a goalless draw at home to Iran.
Their opening Group A 3-2 loss to regional powerhouse South Korea might have been expected but the 1-0 reverse they suffered at the hands of Syria on a rainy night in Xian last Thursday was not.
That defeat means Tuesday's meeting with Uzbekistan in Tashkent looms as a "must-win" match for the Chinese if they are to force their way back into the reckoning for a top-two spot in the group that carries with it a ticket to Russia.
Iran and South Korea currently occupy those spots on seven points followed by Uzbekistan (six) and Syria (four) with China languishing in fifth place with their solitary point.
While there is also the possibility of securing a World Cup berth via two playoffs by finishing third, the Chinese look almost certain to be vying with the Uzbeks for that spot.
"We have only lost two games out of total of 10, which means we still have our chance of qualifying," Gao, who returned for a second stint as coach in February after the dismissal of Frenchman Alain Perrin, said after the shock loss in Xian.
"It is not true that we are losing hope after losing two matches. Our experience tells us that as long as we fight until the last second, we will have opportunities.
"We are very lucky to reach this phase, and we have to give our appreciation to all our supporters. To be frank, we are among the weaker sides in the 12 teams. In this game we wanted three points so badly, but we weren't able to achieve it."
(Writing by Nick Mulvenney in Sydney; Editing by John O'Brien)