Italian master-coach Marcello Lippi is facing one of his toughest assignments as he attempts what some fans think is impossible: putting under-achievers China on the path to greatness.
Starting with Tuesday’s World Cup qualifier against Qatar, the silver-haired Lippi will set out to justify his hefty salary as China’s new boss and win over a sceptical public.
Lippi, 68, won the World Cup with Italy and he is the only coach to lift both the European and Asian Champions League trophies, with Juventus and China’s Guangzhou Evergrande.
But he faces an entirely different challenge as coach of China, whose dismal performances have seen them lambasted by their own long-suffering fans.
While China’s well-heeled clubs, notably Evergrande, have spent their way to success, ‘Team Dragon’ remain mired at 84th in the Fifa rankings, below Israel, Curacao and Libya.
Such is fans’ disillusionment that one widely circulated comment on social media compared Lippi’s arrival to a tycoon hiring “a Harvard graduate to tutor his retarded son”.
Lippi’s appointment – at a reported $20 million a year – is the latest gambit by the Chinese FA, under pressure from President Ji Xinping to craft an era of success.
The cigar-loving, medallion-sporting Lippi led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, four years after China made their sole appearance at the tournament in 2002, when they failed to win a point or even score a goal.
But while Lippi had undoubted talent at his disposal at Italy, Juventus and even deep-pocketed Evergrande, he cannot buy in fresh players to revitalise China’s squad.
He replaces Gao Hongbo, who resigned in October after two defeats in five days to war-torn Syria and Uzbekistan left the world’s most populous nation bottom of Group A in World Cup qualifying, with just one point from four games.
With six games left and only the top two of six teams qualifying automatically for Russia 2018, the odds are stacked against China. Defeat in Kunming to Qatar will reduce their already slim hopes to almost zero.
There are reasons for optimism, for next week at least. China beat fellow strugglers Qatar, the 2022 World Cup hosts, in the previous qualifying round in March.
And Kunming, in China’s south-west, has an altitude of 1 900 metres (6 234 feet) above sea level. With China spending an 11-day training camp in the city, home advantage could be crucial.
“There is no guarantee of victory against Qatar but we will do our best,” Lippi said this week, according to Sina.com. “I am looking for improvements from the players.”
He has identified his first task as changing the players’ mentality, scarred by decades of failure which have left their mark on the team as well as Chinese fans.
“Our main goal at the moment is to help the players to become more confident and know exactly what they have to do,” said Lippi.
China has spent big on coaches before, with limited success. Former Spain and Real Madrid coach Juan Antonio Camacho joined for a reported $8 million in 2011, but he was sacked in 2013 after a run of poor results.
In April, the Chinese FA unveiled a long-term plan to make the national team a world superpower by 2050. Lippi has an early part to play in changing the culture around the team.
HOPING FOR A ‘MIRACLE’
According to midfielder Huang Bowen, Lippi’s arrival has already had an impact, bringing self-belief to the Chinese camp.
“We have Lippi with us,” Huang said. “This is what gives us the most confidence. He has stressed that we must have the desire to win and believe in ourselves and our teammates.”
Huang is one of seven players in the squad from Guangzhou Evergrande, Lippi’s team from 2012 to 2014 who have just won their sixth straight Chinese Super League title.
“They have a winning mentality, they have an understanding of international soccer, and these are all positive things, which could lead us to positive results,” Lippi said of Evergrande.
Lippi, whose contract runs until January 2019, hasn’t entirely given up hope on reaching Russia 2018 – but he admits it would be a “miracle” if China qualify.
“If we can win three or four matches among the next six of the campaign, I think it would still be a huge improvement no matter whether we qualify or not,” he said.
“We all hope a miracle can happen and for the Chinese national team to qualify for the World Cup.”