HONG KONG, Jan 17 (Reuters) - China is banking its footballing future on youth development and the world's most populous nation has plenty to do if their performance at the AFC Under-23 Championship over the last week is anything to go by.
Coached by Massimiliano Maddaloni and with a handful of full internationals in the squad, China slumped out of the tournament before the knockout stages after a 2-1 loss to Qatar in Changzhou, Jiangsu province on Monday.
It means another continental youth competition will pass without a Chinese team making a significant impact, a further sign the road to the upper reaches of Asian football, let alone the global game, remains long and difficult.
Italian Maddaloni's irritation was clear after seeing his side, reduced to 10 men for much of the game, fail to reach the quarter-finals for the first time.
"I do not want to discuss any details about this match," he said after the defeat.
"We think that all the players tried their best and that they tried to win this match. I am very proud to be their coach."
In a must-win game, Yao Junsheng gave China an early lead only for captain He Chao's sending off to turn the tide in Qatar's favour, with Almoez Ali scoring twice to condemn the Chinese to third place in their group behind the Qataris and Uzbekistan.
National team boss Marcello Lippi had talked up the prospects of China's young players going into the tournament after including six of Maddaloni's side in the squad he took to the East Asian Championship in Japan last month.
And while there were positives to be taken from the latest failure, notably the growing talent of winger Wei Shihao and the tactical understanding Maddaloni has instilled in his team, China still lag behind Asia's best when it comes to youth development.
Qatar, the hosts of the World Cup in 2022, have consistently challenged at Asian tournaments over the last five years and Uzbekistan are regular qualifiers at FIFA's age group tournaments.
Serial World Cup qualifiers Japan and South Korea also consistently advance to the under-17 and under-20 World Cups as well as the finals of the Olympic Games.
China, by contrast, recorded only their first victory in three appearances at the under-23 championship, a 3-0 win over Oman in the opener, and have not gone beyond the quarter-finals of the Asian under-16 or under-19 championships since 2004.
They also failed to qualify for this year's Asian under-16 championship to be played in Malaysia in September.
Development programmes are being initiated across the country and huge sums are being poured into hiring high-profile coaches, who preach patience at every opportunity.
In an attempt to further encourage development ahead of the 2020 Olympics, the Chinese Football Association has strengthened Chinese Super League regulations to force clubs to field as many players under the age of 23 as they do foreigners.
All of this is being done in attempt to develop a national team capable of delivering on President Xi Jinping's desire to see the country end a World Cup drought that goes back to 2002, China’s sole appearance at the tournament.
"We could see that a few players became irritated after the match, and we tried to tell them that this is a process for them to grow up," said Maddaloni.
"Probably everyone needs to experience that. This is football." (Editing by Peter Rutherford)