Marcello Lippi has long since left his mark on Chinese football. As coach of Guangzhou Evergrande he ended a decade-long drought of Chinese clubs under-performing at international level by winning the 2013 Asian Champions League. As he also achieved an additional national championship hat-trick, Lippi is considered a title guarantor. The Chinese Association apparently considers this reputation to be worth 50 million Euros for the coming three years, with the hope the Italian can push the Chinese national team forward. As from last weekend Lippi has been appointed not only the new national coach but also the co-ordinator for the renewal of the entire infrastructure of the national team.
Lippi, who coached Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, replaces unlucky Gao Hongbo , who recently resigned after a 2-0 defeat in Uzbekistan. It was China’s third defeat in four matches in the decisive qualifying round for the 2018 World Cup finals. With just one point, the Chinese are six points away from third place overall, with six matches left. Third place would ascertain participation in the play-offs against the third-placed team of the parallel group, for the fifth and last Asian World Cup finals place.
Lippi will make his debut at the home match against Qatar in mid-November. Among the experts in the country it is considered almost impossible for the Chinese to snatch a ticket to Russia after their recent performances. After the failure in Tashkent, the People’s Newspaper even asked provocatively: “Does China’s football have to start from scratch?” The recent defeats have dampened the widespread new euphoria. Governmental development programmes, contracts worth billions for the TV rights of the League and transfer expenditure sometimes higher than in the English Premier League, helped fuel expectations that China could be on the threshold of becoming a major football nation. But reality has already caught up with the Chinese fans. Foreign stars have helped boost local football but are of only limited value for China’s success on the world stage.
“Lippi must look under every rock in order to get the national team on track to success long-term”, says sports journalist Wang Lu. He predicts it will be a mammoth task. “Even though Lippi has celebrated success with Guangzhou, he will face completely new challenges with the national team”. Compared with the modernised structures of Evergrande, the Association is still living in the past with old ideas and various insider relationships and interests. In addition scouting is still in its infancy in China. There are too few trained youth coaches. And after a number of scandals the sport’s reputation does not enjoy appreciation with parents of potential talents. “Within three years Lippi will only be able to lay the basis for a change, but he won’t turn China into one of the leading footballing nations during that time”, says journalist Wang.
However, the Association has given a clear signal with its amply endowed contract. They want to enforce change for the better, particularly as the authoritarian Chinese President Xi Jinping is a great football fan and has publicly expressed the wish of winning the World Cup. For his engagement Lippi even retreated from an already signed contract with his former club Guangzhou. The champions explained on their Internet site that a respective agreement had been torn up. The conditions for Lippi’s departure from Guangzhou are not yet known. As successor to Luis-Felipe Scolari, the 68-year-old should have continued Guangzhou’s dominance in the People’s Republic next year. Only a few days ago the club ascertained their sixth championship title in a row. Under Scolari Guangzhou had also won the 2015 Asian Champions League.
Indirectly AC Milan are also involved in Lippi now coaching the Chinese national team. At the beginning of the year the Italian first division club negotiated with Lippi, to take over from the then incumbent Sinisa Mihajlovic in the event of him being sacked. But the Milan team, then in trouble, saved their coach’s head with a few good results, though Mihajlovic remained only a short time before being sacked in April. But at that time an engagement of Lippi had been broken off some time earlier. Now the man, who led Italy out of a crisis and to the 2006 World Cup title in Germany, could ultimately get China’s national team going.