Manchester United legend Bobby Charlton is worried about the fortunes of another team in red - China.
|Sir Bobby is frustrated by the lack of progress of China's football scene [GALLO/GETTY]
After a boom time leading up to China's single appearance at the World Cup finals in 2002, Chinese football has settled into a quagmire of mediocrity and scandal, with the world's most populous nation failing to earn a spot on football’s world stage.
English champions United play a friendly against Hangzhou Greentown this weekend in a country whose national team have slumped to 108th in the Fifa world rankings and made an early exit from qualifying for next year's World Cup in South Africa.
"What really saddens me is that a country the size of China doesn't have the wherewithal to qualify on a regular basis for the World Cup," Charlton, now a United director, said on a recent visit to the country where he began coaching youngsters 20 years ago.
"Since my first visit, I have worked with young people and I found out that they have as much ability as anyone else in the world but they have never been able to get a successful team," the 71-year-old said.
"If you talk about Japan and the two Koreas, China with the largest population in the world, can't produce a team good enough to do it.
"I think there has to be a longer look at where Chinese football is going. I have so many friends here and I am desperate to see them smiling and not being miserable."
Talent and potential
Charlton, a World Cup winner with England in 1966, has coached youngsters around the world, including players such as David Beckham, since hanging up his boots in 1974 and said the Chinese players he helped to prepare for the 1989 under-17 World Cup had as much, if not more, talent than any.
"I had a group of tests - kicking with your left foot, kicking with your right foot, dribbling, passing etc - and I gave the test to the whole group of Chinese players and they all beat the best score that I'd ever had in England," he said.
"That gave me an insight into the potential of the Chinese, that's why I get really upset, I'm desperate to see them qualify for the World Cup."
So impressed was he by the skill of the Chinese, Charlton persuaded United manager Alex Ferguson to take two of them, Wu Chongwen and Su Maozhen, back to Manchester with him to train alongside Beckham, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville.
Injuries contributed to their failure to make a breakthrough, Charlton said, and it was not until striker Dong Fangzhuo played against Chelsea in May 2007 that a Chinese player finally made his debut for United.
Fangzhuo played just a few games before returning home last year and the failure of Chinese and other Asian players to match the impact some Korean and Japanese have had in the top leagues is the subject of great debate, not least among coaches such as Ferguson.
"Well I think if you look at Japan and South Korea then there is a different level of competition than in other (Asian) countries," the Scot said last week in Kuala Lumpur.
"In Japan, the J-League has brought in a lot of Brazilian players and coaches from abroad. That has elevated them to a high level.
"In (South) Korea, when (Guus) Hiddink got them to the World Cup semi-final in 2002 it elevated their country and the competition became greater.
"That also raised confidence in those countries and that is why you have clubs like ourselves looking for Premier League players there."
|Charlton believes China should look abroad for quality coaching [GALLO/GETTY]
Charlton agrees that foreign coaching is one of the keys to getting the best out of talented youngsters in China, a strategy apparently abandoned by China in April when they replaced experienced Serbian coaches with 43-year-old Gao Hongbo.
"If I had someone who was a good hurdler and I wanted them to improve, you send them to the United States because that's where they have the best hurdling coaches," Charlton said.
"With football you can say France, Spain, you can say Italy but generally speaking the best coaches for teaching young people are in England.
"Generally speaking if you see improvement in Asia, it's because they have had input from European coaches.
"It's a bitter pill but you have to swallow it. The potential in this country is just phenomenal."