Yokohama - Guangzhou Evergrande coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said Chinese football is on track to being world-class within five years after their loss to Barcelona at the Club World Cup.
A Luis Suarez hat-trick gave Barca a 3-0 win in Yokohama on Thursday, sending the European Champions through to the final against Argentina's River Plate at the weekend.
But Scolari hailed the growth of the game in China and lavished praise on his players, following another successful season in which Evergrande won a fifth successive Chinese championship and a second AFC Champions League title in three years.
"There is still a gap between us and the rest of the world," he said. "We're not world-class yet but we're heading in the right direction and it's important we keep going. We're learning all the time.
"It may take four or five years for Chinese football to catch up to the world but we will keep pushing," added Scolari, who will look to improve on his club's fourth-place finish last year in Morocco by beating Japan's Sanfrecce Hiroshima on Sunday.
"I thanked the players for a truly wonderful year," said the former Brazil coach whose spoiling tactics had frustrated Barca until Suarez broke through six minutes before half-time.
"We've lost but we've lost to a great team in Barcelona. They have beaten many top teams 3-0 so there's no shame in this result."
Scolari was sacked in his second spell as Brazil coach after a traumatic World Cup last year, the hosts famously crashing out after a humiliating 7-1 defeat by Germany in the semi-finals with star striker Neymar sidelined through injury.
Neymar was rested against Scolari's Evergrande side on Wednesday as he recovers from a groin strain, while Lionel Messi pulled out of the game suddenly with kidney problems. But Barca still had Suarez to plunge the dagger into the Chinese side.
"Even without Messi and Neymar, Barcelona have exceptional quality throughout their squad," shrugged Scolari, who surprisingly opted to keep former Real Madrid striker Robinho on the bench.
"They showed us again how to play beautiful football. But I am more interested in the development of my team," added Scolari, whose first stint as Brazil coach ended with them lifting the World Cup for a fifth time in 2002, at the same Yokohama stadium.
"My players showed great character, great determination and they continue to develop as a group. Many teams in Spain and Europe have suffered the same fate, so they know they can play at that level."
Evergrande came into the semi-final unbeaten in 24 games, but the manner of their defeat served to underline the gulf in class between European clubs and the rest of the world.
The Chinese club's last foray into the Club World Cup also ended in a 3-0 semi-final defeat, when Bayern Munich beat Marcello Lippi's Evergrande in 2013.