The chief of China's football association has told the country's players not to lose their confidence, after the team's embarrassing loss to war-torn Syria jeopardised hopes of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
The national side's 0-1 defeat Thursday before a home crowd of 40,000 in the northern Chinese city of Xi'an had enraged fans, spurring many to call for the sacking of China's football association president Cai Zhenhua.
But he has ignored the calls so far, and sought to reassure Team Dragon players they "absolutely must not lose confidence because of this loss," the Xin Kuaibao newspaper reported Saturday.
"We still have seven games, you must bring out your fighting spirit. Especially at times like this (after a loss), you mustn't give up."
The association told AFP it would not be making further comment on the defeat.
China's national team wrote a message after the Syria loss on their official Weibo social media account thanking fans for their "unending cheers" and "fighting by our side".
"You are our pride, and to all our fans who came out yesterday, we'd sincerely like to say we're grateful we have you, thanks for all your trouble," it said on its official account Friday.
"With you there, we can face every defeat, and we can overcome every setback. Keep your head up, we'll continue the struggle!"
China's beleaguered fans have a well-developed sense of humour about the travails of their national side, who are ranked a lowly 78th in the world and have failed to qualify for the World Cup since their first and only appearance in 2002.
In that outing China finished winless and goalless, but under China's president Xi Jinping -- an avowed football fan -- the country has set its sights on hosting, qualifying for, and winning a World Cup.
Fans dryly noted that while China paid players lavishly, the victorious 114th-ranked Syrian side had flown in on a commercial jet with four layovers, paid their a coach 2000 yuan ($300) per month, and lost many players who had fled the country's violence in the past five years.
Others joked in an article circulated on WeChat social media that if fans had bet 1000 yuan against China every match since 1990, they would now have 4.59 million yuan, better than investing in stocks or bonds.
Though the Syria loss hurt their chances, China remain in the running to reach Russia 2018, and will face Uzbekistan on October 11.