Veteran Dutch coach Guus Hiddink began a long journey with the China U-21 football squad in the Netherlands this week, with the ambitious goal of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
In the middle of the Veluwe woods near here, a small village in the central province of Gelderland, the sounds of birds singing, acorns dropping, and football training can be heard. Players scream for the ball, and coaches give comments and advice, reports Xinhua news agency.
This is a training session for China U-21, under the guidance of the 71-year-old Hiddink, and his assistants Jelle Goes and Harry Sinkgraven, along with other Dutch and Chinese coaches. The hotel in Hoenderloo that is hosting the Chinese team for the 13 day training camp is familiar ground for Hiddink.
In 1998, Hiddink trained the Dutch national team for that year's World Cup on this same pitch. It was the start of a beautiful summer for the Netherlands, as they finished the tournament in fourth place. Hiddink subsequently returned to these fields many more times, with South Korea (semi-finalists at World Cup 2002) and Australia (second round at World Cup 2006).
Now Hiddink is back in Hoenderloo with China, and embarking on a new journey. Two years after his last coaching job at Chelsea, after a rich career as coach of PSV Eindhoven, Fenerbahce, Valencia, Real Madrid, Real Betis, Anzhi Makhachkala and the national teams of the Netherlands, South Korea, Australia, Russia and Turkey, Hiddink last month decided to accept an offer from the Chinese Football Association (CFA) to become the new coach of the country's U-21 team.
"I like to work with young lads and make them better. The CFA said they would love to see a Chinese football team at the Olympics and they asked me to help develop players and build a team for this. They added that it would be very difficult, because they had never qualified. Only as host nation were they present in 2008," Hiddink told Xinhua at the side of the training pitch.
The session ends with an eight-a-side match, with some players getting some rest, others in the gym and an unlucky few being treated for injuries. Sinkgraven and Goes both lead a team, with Hiddink staying in the middle of the field for additional comments.
"I have had the pleasure to work with many different cultures," Hiddink said.
"I have learned from every culture. In the Asian culture players are very respectful and obedient. I also noticed that here, but I also noticed that on this third day they loosened up already and I want that. I want them to take the initiative if they have the quality. I also saw them run like headless chickens on the first day, but now it is already better. That's what we are working towards, keeping the good and getting rid of the bad."
Before being officially appointed, Hiddink had already watched China U-21 play in September, in a four-nation championship in Yunnan in which the team finished second, with one win over Myanmar and draws against Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
The first goal for Hiddink and China is the AFC U-23 Championship qualification tournament from March 18 to 26 next year. If China clears this first hurdle they can qualify for the Olympics during the AFC U-23 Championship in January 2020. The top three teams of this final tournament will qualify for Japan, with the hosts already being granted a spot.
"We want to bring the boys to a level where they can be competitive with the best teams in Asia, like Japan, South Korea and Australia, although we know it is difficult, because as a football nation China is a developing country," Hiddink acknowledged.
"We will attempt to reach the impossible. But first we have to see in March. If it's negative and it ends there, we will stop. If it is positive we will continue until the next qualifying round."
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