MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Of all China's players at the Asian Cup, captain Zheng Zhi may be the most tired of hearing his nation described as the "sleeping giant" of world soccer.
The 34-year-old midfielder first made his mark in the national team as it surfed a wave of optimism in the wake of their first and only World Cup appearance at the 2002 finals in South Korea and Japan.
More than 12 years later, Zheng's dreams of playing in soccer's global showpiece are all but extinguished, with a succession of Chinese teams failing to deliver on the expectations brought by the country's economic might and 1.3 billion people.
China claims modern-day soccer is derived from a Han dynasty sport played over 2,000 years ago, but is less inclined to boast about its current standing in the game.
Chronic underachievement has been married with a string of match-fixing scandals in its professional leagues. Dozens of players, referees, club officials and senior administrators have been jailed for corruption in recent years.
China's President Xi Jinping, an avowed soccer fan like hundreds of millions of his compatriots, has bemoaned the corruption-blighted local game as a national embarrassment.
Through it all, Zheng has soldiered on.
Raised in China's northeastern rustbelt province of Liaoning, Zheng is the only player left from the squad that made the final of the 2004 Asian Cup on home soil where they lost to bitter rivals Japan.
The Beijing defeat was the trigger for a night of anti-Japan rioting by Chinese fans and a preview of the turmoil to follow.
Months later, China, coached by Dutchman Arie Haan, would crash out of qualification for the 2006 World Cup. Zheng would play a central role in the team's failure.
Needing to score two more goals than Kuwait to advance to the final round of Asian qualifying, China had to score eight in a match against Hong Kong after Kuwait trounced Malaysia 6-1.
China would win 7-0, with Zheng missing a 71st minute spot-kick.
Many Chinese fans, disillusioned by the country's hopelessly corrupt leagues, suspected the result, if not the entire qualifying phase, was fixed.
Zheng would feel the wrath of a disappointed public through another two failed World Cup campaigns and first-round exits at both the 2007 and 2011 Asian Cups -- leaving aside other setbacks at Olympic and Asian Games.
At club level, however, Zheng is among China's rare success stories, a player who has broken into a big European league for more than a handful of games.
He made his English Premier League debut with Charlton Athletic in 2007 and would also spend a season with Scottish league giants Celtic before returning home to lead south China's powerful Guangzhou Evergrande.
Zheng's homecoming coincided with an upswing in China's domestic game, with property tycoons taking over clubs and spending fortunes to recruit foreign talent.
He was a driving force in Guangzhou's Asian Champions League triumph in 2012-13 and named the continent's Player of the Year in 2013.
The only player above 30 in China's Asian Cup squad, Zheng was recalled by French coach Alain Perrin last year to guide his youthful team mates in Australia.
Following a promising run of results in the leadup, China has raised cautious optimism at home after winning their opening Group B match against Saudi Arabia 1-0.
A win over Uzbekistan in Brisbane later on Wednesday would seal a quarter-final berth.
"As you know after the World Cup, Chinese football suffered some dark years but I think after the year we had, the team has started heading in the right direction," Zheng said before the tournament.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
Did you find this article insightful?