A native of Shanghai, a city synonymous with the Chinese growth miracle, Yi Weizhong watched up-close as his country morphed into a world economic powerhouse. Yet he can’t envisage anything like that happening on the international football scene, doubting that even a coach of Marcello Lippi’s caliber can transform the dismal national team into a genuine World Cup contender.
“It’s not worth hiring Lippi,” Yi said, referring to the 2006 World Cup-winning manager’s appointment as head coach of the Chinese team.
“I would rather hire more good coaches for youth training,” added Yi, a salesman, who attended a game last week at Shanghai’s Hongkou stadium. “I can’t see hope for the next 10 years.”
Ever since the Chinese Football Association announced last month it had coaxed Lippi out of retirement, the national team’s long-suffering fans have greeted the news with indifference, cynicism, and even a hint of outrage.
Rather than celebrating the appointment of the most high-profile coach China has ever had, some supporters have balked at the size of Lippi’s rumored contract.
A popular joke circulating on the Wechat messaging service compares it with “a nouveau riche family hiring a Harvard professor to tutor their kid.”
Given the team’s record of failure under a string of foreign and Chinese coaches, the problems are more often attributed to the lack of a strong youth program and a misplaced, money-driven focus on the domestic league.
Lippi was hired to replace Gao Hongbo, who quit after a 2-0 loss in Uzbekistan last month left China with one point from four qualifying matches and with little hope of making it to Russia in 2018. China has qualified for one World Cup, the 2002 edition co-hosted by Japan and South Korea, where it bounced out in the group stage without scoring a goal.
Fed up with such results and seeking to close a glaring gap in its international sporting prowess, China this year announced an ambitious football development plan closely identified with President Xi Jinping, a fan of the game. The plan envisions 50 million players joining in the game by the end of the decade and the transformation of the country into a “first-rate major footballing power” by 2050.
The blueprint is seen as another aspect of Xi’s grand narrative of national rejuvenation, dubbed his “China Dream”, that is generally a point of pride for the public. Yet the mixed reactions to Lippi’s appointment reflect a deep cynicism when it comes to supporting a football team that is ranked 84th and which also recently lost to Syria.
Though Xi’s administration has been applauded for proposing to build academies and thousands of football fields, the politically-tinged directive has also spurred the domestic league into spending extravagantly on foreign stars and big-name managers. That has prompted talk of a bubble that will burst before any benefits trickle down to the grassroots.
Against that backdrop have been reports in Italian and Chinese media that Lippi would be paid a record salary of 20 million euros a year.
The former Juventus and Italy coach told Italian reporters last week the figures were exaggerated, but that hasn’t quieted grumbles about yet another football import taking money that could be spent developing Chinese youngsters.
Ma Dexing, one of China’s best-known football commentators, said Xi’s campaign, with its intended emphasis on developing youth, was already “losing its way” amid China’s frenzy of flashy managerial hires and exorbitant player purchases. But Ma said hiring Lippi was justified at whatever cost.
“His situation is different,” Ma said in an interview. “The national team is the dragon’s head, the symbolic leader. If it doesn’t do well, everyone else loses interest in football.”
Lippi, who guided Italy to World Cup success in 2006, coached Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande from 2012 to 2015, winning domestic titles and the Asian Champions League. Rather than serve merely as another foreign figurehead, Ma said, Lippi has the authority and the experience of working in China to truly overhaul the country’s football organization.
“In the past they changed the water but not the medicine,” Ma said. “This is a real revolution.”
In his first meeting with the Chinese media as national coach, Lippi said his top task would be to evaluate his players’ psychology and boost their confidence, rather than introduce new tactics. He said it was highly improbable for China to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, but urged the nation to back his players.
Mark Dreyer, a Beijing-based British sports commentator on China Central Television, said in some ways China resembled England, a country also locked in a perennial cycle of high short-term expectations and intense pressure on the national team, followed by disappointment and cynicism. Chinese football authorities need more independence to do their work, Dreyer said.
“They need someone who can come in and say, `Give me 20 years, you can’t expect results in two years just because you want them,”’ Dreyer said. “But how can they suddenly be free from the government and not answering to Xi Jinping?”
Others are less positive. Outside Shanghai’s Hongkou stadium, property manager Xu Chao said he preferred watching local club Shenhua because the national team’s level of play was simply “unwatchable.”
“It’s useless to hire an expensive coach when the team’s foundation is not good,” Xu said.
Yan Shihao, a junior in university, said it wasn’t just China making a costly bet by hiring Lippi.
“Lippi chose China,” he said. “It’s a brave decision to gamble with his honor.”