Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

Former Italy coach wants to get China's national soccer team to believe

By William Hennelly (China Daily USA) Updated: 2016-11-03 10:46

To Marcello Lippi, China's men's soccer team has enough ability but the players need to believe in themselves.

"I believe the players are all skillful and have no need to feel inferior or envy toward players of other countries, because they can reach the same level," Lippi told reporters at a press conference on Oct 28, at which he was formally introduced as the team's head coach.

"What they need is a sense of responsibility, mission and belief," he said.

The veteran Lippi, 68, should be a pretty good judge of talent. He coached the Azzurri, Italy's national team, to victory over France in the 2006 World Cup.

Lippi was accompanied on Friday by China Football Association (CFA) President Cai Zhenhua. Lippi's contract is worth a rumored $21.8 million a year to 2019, but the veteran manager said he took the job not for the money but because he has a soft spot for Chinese soccer and appreciates China's respect.

Andrea Sartori, global head of sports advisory practice for KPMG, whose Football Benchmark reports cover the business of soccer, told China Daily that Lippi's hiring is "proof of the seriousness of the Chinese leadership in growing football in their country and to establish China through various initiatives (e.g., establishment of youth academies throughout the country, major European clubs acquisition, sponsorship of FIFA, growth of national league, investment in Infront, etc.) as a "super football power".

Former Italy coach wants to get China's national soccer team to believe

(Infront Sports & Media AG is a Swiss sports marketing company that was acquired by Wanda Group for $1.2 billion in early 2015.)

Lippi is set to make his national coaching debut with China on Nov 15 in a World Cup qualifier against Qatar.

"Even though China faces a tough road to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, I still believe players could complete the seemingly impossible mission by better teamwork and shouldering more responsibilities," Lippi said.

Gao Hongbo quit as head coach after a 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan, leaving China with only one point in four games in the last round of World Cup qualifying for Asia.

"In the qualification stages, our chances are not great, but what we need to do is pull together - the entire squad, the CFA, logistics, medical team - and maximize our chances and accomplish this improbable mission," Lippi said. "After that, we can consider our long-term issues."

China, ranked No. 84 in the world, has qualified for the World Cup once, when the 2002 tournament was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan. The Dragons exited the group stages without scoring a goal.

This is Lippi's second tour in China. He guided Guangzhou Evergrande of the Chinese Super League to one Asian and three domestic championship titles from 2012 to 2015. He coached Italy's Juventus to the UEFA Champions League title in 1996 and also won five Serie A (Italy's top flight) cups in his career.

Perhaps Lippi's greatest feat in China was when his Evergrande squad won the 2013 Asian Champions League.

Lippi, born in Viareggio in Italy's Tuscany, said he missed China and had wanted to return. "How they appreciated and respected my work and my team appeals to me," he said.

"Hopefully, he could help the national team establish a technical style that fits into our conditions and advise us on how to reform the national program for fitness, logistics, player development and management," said Cai.

Tan Jianxiang, a sports sociology professor at South China Normal University in Guangzhou, sounded a skeptical note.

"The central government has made it clear that success should be built upon grassroots participation and solid development programs," Tan said. "If we don't have enough young players ... the best coaches in the world could do little to make a difference."

Tan said facilities and coaches need to be improved at the grass roots. China is well on the way to doing that, having hired coaches from Brazil and put on clinics with Brazilian players recently.

China wants to open 50,000 schools for soccer education by 2025; it has 14,000 now.

"What I need to know first is why our players play very well for their club but only at 40 percent for their country," Lippi said. "I want to tell them it's the highest honor to put on the country's shirt, and they need to fight and perform at the same level."

If Lippi does succeed, there likely will be a lot more youngsters in China wearing that red jersey with the CFA patch.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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Former Italy coach wants to get China's national soccer team to believe

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