The South Koreans remain a tough nut to crack for the Chinese, who have lost 19 and won just two of the teams’ last 34 previous meetings. But while history suggests the visitors will start as big underdogs in this latest Seoul showdown, Gao insists that China are well prepared to go toe-to-toe with their heavyweight opponents.
“We have a good squad this time,” the 30-year-old Guangzhou Evergrande striker told FIFA.com.
“The chemistry within the team is nice and our players are in good shape. Coach Gao [Hongbo] knows the players quite well and the team are getting better under his guidance. The World Cup qualifying tournament is a great chance for us to prove ourselves. We should grasp this opportunity and try to live up to expectations.”
Gao was on target when China ended their 32-year wait for a win over Korea Republic with a 3-0 friendly success in 2010, this during the current coach Gao’s last spell in charge. Six years have elapsed since then and, rather than reflect on that achievement, Gao is intent on causing a fresh upset.
“It makes little sense if you compare the current two teams with the sides from six years ago,” Gao explained. “If you look at the line-ups, both teams have changed so much. For us, it is unnecessary to think about the opponents. We will win only when we are strong.”
Scorer and creator
With 18 goals from 87 international appearances, Gao is the team’s second-top scorer – just one goal shy of national legend Zheng Zhi. What’s more, he enters the game in fine form, having proved his worth to Guangzhou both in scoring and creating goals – with nine strikes and eight assists to his name already this season. The latter tally he attributes to improved maturity and understanding of the game.
“When I was young, I was hot-tempered and all that I wanted was to score goals,” he continued. “Now I have changed. All that I want is to win games. You are a good striker not only for scoring goals, but for winning matches. When I have an 80 per cent possibility of scoring I will definitely make the pass to a team-mate if he has a 90 per cent possibility of scoring. Winning is more important than scoring.”
Back in 2010, Gao finished the season as the Chinese second division’s top scorer with 20 goals as Guangzhou earned promotion to the top flight. He went on to contribute another 11 the following season as the newly-promoted side became the Chinese Super League’s shock champions. Ever since, he has remained an integral part of a Guangzhou side that went on to win the next four league titles, not to mention two AFC Champions League crowns. This is all the more impressive considering the upheaval at the club during that period, including the comings and goings of famous coaches such as Lee Jangsoo, Marcello Lippi, Fabio Cannavaro and the current incumbent, Luiz Felipe Scolari.
“I should thank these coaches for their faith in me,” said Gao. “These are renowned and experienced coaches. They have sharp observation skills and can quickly see what you are capable of. So they have always played me in the role which suits me. Besides, they watch you carefully and tell you in which areas you should improve.”
Older and wiser
As for China, they overcame a disappointing start to seal qualification to the third qualifying round – the first time since they have been at this stage since reaching the World Cup itself in 2002. A pair of draws against Hong Kong and defeat to Qatar put their hopes in real jeopardy but, under new boss Gao, they bounced back to win their remaining games, including a decisive 2-0 victory over Qatar that sealed progress.
“It was nothing to do with luck,” said Gao. “It was all about the collective efforts of the team. We defied all the odds and predications to make it. In football, it is only the result that matters.”
The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius once said that a man “should plant his feet firmly upon the ground at thirty”. And Gao, who turns 30 this February, is happy to accept that wisdom in accepting his position as one of the current squad’s leaders.
“I am not young,” he acknowledged. “I have increasing pressure on me as I grow older. And I want to prove myself. I will get myself prepared for any role the coach wants me to play, both on and off the pitch.”