Marcello Lippi will lead China for the first time tonight as the team faces off against Qatar in a World Cup Qualifying match in Qatar. While qualifying for 2018 is close to an impossibility, after Gao Hongbo’s resignation, Lippi was the only possible choice.
Granted, it was less than seven months ago I declared that Gao should be given a chance in charge. Gao had formerly done a solid job in charge of China, there were some questionable decisions and an Asian Cup failure, but it seemed like he had the team going in the right direction before the disaster that was Jose Antonio Camacho took charge. This time around it seemed right to give Gao a chance. However, Gao was never known as a tactical guru, his expertise was as a player’s manager who could get the most out of his squad, yet this time around things didn’t work that way.
With only one point in four matches, it was no surprise when Gao resigned after China’s home loss to Syria. The CFA then were stuck with little more than a month to find the next manager of China, or put an interim manager in charge. With unlikely speed, the CFA made the right move in naming Lippi to the position.
As China has little hope of making it to Russia, the next manager of China will have to coach out the string of qualifiers and then the next important international competition on China’s schedule won’t be until the Asian Cup in 2019. Few of the “big name” or “famous” international managers China would have been interested in would be willing to miss out on a chance at managing in the World Cup or at a top club for so long. Further, none would have the knowledge of the Chinese players that would be needed to pick a squad in a month’s time. Unfortunately, China’s domestic options have pretty much all been exercised and an option like Gregorio Manzano might have knowledge of the domestic talent, but wouldn’t command the respect of the locker room like a bigger name.
Which is why Lippi is perfect. He has the unique accomplishment of winning the Champions League in Europe and Asia as well as the World Cup, meaning that he will instantly have the respect of every player in the locker room. There’s also the added bonus that he’s coached many of them at Guangzhou Evergrande and already has a good relationship with them, as well as a knowledge of the league. Most of all, the semi-retirement nature of the position makes it an ideal fit for Lippi, who doesn’t have any pretenses of wanting a “better” job. Further, his previous success insulates him from criticism and sees him taking on duties for China in a benevolent role.
There is always the issue as to how much his heart is in this job or whether its just another paycheck, but for the time being there’s reason to be optimistic. His squad for the Qatar match shows a bit of outside the box thinking and a degree of independence. One can only hope that will be maintained during his tenure and he won’t be lazy and let the CFA dictate to him.
There’s one final positive about Lippi in charge of the CFA. While China has a dearth of up and coming managers, Li Tie, a former member of Lippi’s staff, appeared to be one, until he was fired when Hebei fell on hard times this year and after a spat with the CFA. While Li was in the wilderness for awhile, Lippi has been able to paper over the cracks with the CFA and bring him into the fold, meaning Lippi may be mentoring his potential successor when he decides its time to return to retirement.
I don’t often praise the CFA and while Lippi should have been given the job in 2014, this time around he was the ideal choice for the job. The result of tonight’s match isn’t important (though it would be good to kick off the Lippi era with a win), what matters most is Lippi is the right man to build Chinese football over the next few years.