China skipper makes retirement U-turn with World Cup hopes in balance

By AFP   March 25, 2024 | 06:13 pm PT
China skipper makes retirement U-turn with World Cup hopes in balance
Zhang Linpeng (number 5) and his teammates thank fans after their 2-2 draw against Singapore in the second qualifying round of the 2026 World Cup on March 21, 2024. Photo by CFP
China captain Zhang Linpeng is in line to play in a crucial World Cup qualifier on Tuesday, days after quitting international football over the "disgrace" of a draw with Singapore.

Known as China's answer to Sergio Ramos because he also plays center-back and also has numerous tattoos, Zhang said he'd had enough after his team surrendered a 2-0 lead at Singapore on Thursday.

"We can't even manage to beat Singapore at this point," the 34-year-old fumed in the aftermath.

"Personally I find it unbearable. It's a disgrace."

But with China's chances of reaching the World Cup for only a second time in the balance, Zhang has had a swift change of heart.

"Those words I said immediately after the match clearly had a big impact on the team and the players," the defender told state television at the weekend.

"In fact, what I wanted to say – but maybe I didn't handle it the right way – was that my own mistake put the team into that situation (in the game).

"In that respect, first of all as the captain, I don't think I led the team properly."

He added: "Now I've thought back over it, as long as the national team needs me -- whether that's as a first-choice player, as a substitute or even if I don't get on to the pitch -- I'm still willing to give everything I have for this team."

China host Singapore on Tuesday in Tianjin and are third in their World Cup qualifying group. Only the top two advance to the final stage on the road to 2026.

South Korea top the group and poised to go through, with China and Thailand tied on four points, but the Thais have a better goal difference.

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