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Can China actually qualify for the 48-team 2026 World Cup?

Newly appointed China head coach Aleksandar Janković is aiming to guide the Asian country to qualification for the 2026 World Cup, the Serbian said, adding that the team has room for improvement.

Despite major government ambitions for the team, China have qualified for the World Cup only once in 2002 when they lost all three of their group matches and failed to score a goal.

The 2026 World Cup, to be held in the United States, Mexico and Canada, will be the first edition to feature 48 teams, with at least eight countries from the Asian Football Confederation set to feature.

"I know that every long journey starts with a small step. As a head coach, I must have a clear picture of the big target — the general goal is for the 2026 World Cup, and the Chinese team must play," Jankovic told reporters on Wednesday. "We have a lot of things to do... we have no time to waste. I fully agree that the big goal is determined by what we do every day. I make no difference when preparing big games and friendly games. We have to start implementing all the details from our first training tomorrow."

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Janković, who was appointed last week, will guide the team at next year's Asian Cup and the qualifiers for the World Cup. The former Red Star Belgrade coach and player has been in charge of various China age group teams since 2018 and was named caretaker coach of the senior side for the East Asian Championships last year after Li Xiaopeng resigned.

Janković said he has been a long-time follower of Chinese soccer and emphasized the need for better fitness among players.

"Over the last 30 months, I spent 28 months watching games in China and observing players not only from the Chinese Super League but from China League One and League two as well. I know all levels of Chinese players well," the 50-year-old added. "Chinese players and Chinese people are intelligent and learn fast, which is something that I have never seen in my life elsewhere. However, if you are not fit, maybe you can win one game, but you can never win a competition.

"Our players need to improve their physical conditions, intensity and aggressiveness. Otherwise, we will always stay at home when the big competition comes. It's a challenge for me as a coach if we want to match up with those good teams in the world."

China, 80th in the world rankings, are twice Asian Cup runners-up.

(Reporting by Manasi Pathak in Bengaluru; Editing by Kim Coghill)

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