Not lost in translation
Updated: 2013-02-01 07:54
By Mariella Radaelli (China Daily)
Marcello Lippi is taking Italian football ideas to China's Guangzhou Evergrande team. Provided to China Daily
Despite the language barrier, Marcello Lippi, coach of Italy's 2006 World Cup winning team, has found success in Guangzhou
The right man, hired at the right time in a team's evolution: Marcello Lippi, manager of Guangzhou Evergrande, is enthusiastic about his Chinese football team.
The club, from the southern industrial city of Guangzhou, has won two titles this season, and excitement is still in the air.
The former Italian national team head coach, 64, was appointed manager of Guangzhou Evergrande last May on a salary of 10 million euros ($12.74 million) a season.
On the team's improvement, he says, "We have not peaked yet, but we're looking forward to what we can achieve over the coming months." His contract will run until November 2014.
Lippi's burning desire for success goes hand in hand with a love of talking football. I spoke with him during the off-season, when he was back in his native Italy, where he guided the Azzurri to World Cup glory in 2006. The silver-haired Evergrande boss is the only manager to have won both the World Cup and the European Cup, with Juventus a decade earlier.
Lippi's understanding of football has surely benefited Evergrande this season, as he led it to a Chinese Super League title and a Chinese Super Cup title.
"I'm extremely satisfied with the two victories," says Lippi. "That was our mission and I congratulate my players for getting that done. But apart from this, the thing which makes me happiest is the team's growth. My players have improved a lot throughout their daily training. They work hard, and they are honing their skills. This pleases me immensely."
His next target is the AFC Champions League title (the premier Asian club football competition, hosted annually by the Asian Football Confederation).
Were there difficulties in the beginning?
"The difficulties were huge. The most problematic aspect of working with the team was the difficulty and stress of communication," he says. Lippi is famous for liking to interact with his players.
"I want for them to see what is coming from my mind, and my heart," he says.
How does he feel about his experience in China, both professionally and socially?
"I am very focused on what I am doing. I bring Italian football ideas to the team. I share my way of working and my philosophy, and so far the results have been extremely positive. The players react very well to the Italian method," he says.
Has he established new rules regarding free time and eating habits? He says laughing: "If you want to know, I haven't introduced the Mediterranean diet, as I discovered that Chinese cuisine can be quite healthy. Yes, it can be light, with little oil.
"You can have simple dishes, very delicate in flavor, really exquisite. Therefore, I want my players to stick to their food habits.
"There's no reason to change them. Even I have benefited from it these months. As you well know, we Italians are often very biased where food is concerned. Chinese do not only eat cockroaches and snakes, but a wide range of food. However, you can always jump in a car and find an authentic Italian restaurant."
What does Lippi like most about Chinese life? And what does he dislike?
"To be fair, I like everything about this place. But above all, I really appreciate the kindness and affection the people show us," he says.
"In addition, I like the way the fans support their favorite sports team."
Lippi also values the lack of media pressure, which he says can be "unbearable" in Italy.
Most problems are on the pitch.
"Chinese players are good enough from the tactical point of view, but generally have slower rhythms than us, and there is little movement without the ball," he says.
"These are the things that we focus on. They absorb information easily but they need to improve playing on the offensive end. They must be more assertive. They have to put more energy into their attacking style of offense. An attacking mentality is paramount. We need to hammer, hammer, hammer."
Lippi's personality and charisma bring the team together. "My task is to engage the players to create a team atmosphere," he says. "You win if you become a team. It doesn't necessarily mean that you've got to have the best football players in the world. It is possible that the big names all together don't become a team. It's like a mosaic. You have to put all the pieces together."
Lippi misses home, but is happy in Guangzhou.
"Actually, I do miss everything, my family, my little nephews, my friends," he says.
"I miss Viareggio (the Tuscan seaside resort where he grew up) and the sea. I am in love with the sea. I feel so well when I am near the sea.
"I have been homesick this year, especially when you realize that life back home has gone on without you. But in China I am having a fantastic experience. I live my days with full, passionate immersion into this very interesting country. I was given a great welcome, when I arrived. Guangzhou is a very beautiful city. I love to work in China."
For Chinese football to improve to the level of Europe or South America, there needs to be a shift away from just buying in foreign players to training young Chinese talent, he believes.
"It is a matter of benefiting Chinese football as a whole in the long term," he says.
"The main factor for growth, in my opinion, is significant investment in young players, which at the moment does not exist. Forging high-quality Chinese players, making them grow with high-profile coaches from the start is essential.
"However it is also vital that star players arrive, as they are doing now. For instance, Shanghai Shenhua recently bought two internationally famous players this year: great striker Didier Drogba and Frenchman Nicolas Anelka. Nevertheless, that team did badly. It only managed to finish ninth in the league. This fact confirms my theory: It is not the big names that bring results in the end, but the team's unity and chemistry: a group of strong players with a sense of belonging. In addition, I think that Chinese players need to protect and strengthen their cultural identities within a broader context of relations."
When asked if he would like to transform Guangzhou Evergrande into a kind of Chelsea or Milan of Asia, he replies smiling: "I love both teams. English football is really strong, great in defense, midfield, and attack. Actually, listening to my heart, I would prefer to turn my team into the Juventus of Asia."
He has no nostalgia for Italian football. "Not at all," he says. "In my 30 years of career in Italy, I have done everything that there was to do, and I have enjoyed all of the greatest satisfactions.
"Now, I am completely occupied with this new experience that involves me completely."
Lippi took his first coaching course at 25 after a playing career, mainly as central defender with Sampdoria. In his first 10 seasons in management he coached nine clubs.
His life changed when he joined Juventus in 1994 and, apart from a disastrous 15 months at Inter, stayed a decade, winning five scudettos (Serie A Championships) and the Champions League. He took over the Italian national team in 2004.
Lippi's distractions are deep-sea fishing and sailing. "I don't have a new hobby in China", he says. "I don't have time on my hands, but when I simply have a couple of days not taken up by scheduled activities, I enjoy going to Hainan island. It is so relaxing over there. It's my favorite spot."
(China Daily 02/01/2013 page20)