Can Lippi lift sinking China?
ITALIAN master-coach Marcello Lippi is facing one of his toughest assignments as he attempts what some fans think is impossible: putting underachievers 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 longsuffering 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 US$20 million (RM85.2m) 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. – AFP