In a surprise to literally no one, China crashed out of the Asian Cup last night after a difficult 3-0 defeat to Iran in which they were unable to produce much in the way of chances. To steal a line from an American football coach, China were who we thought they were and this result shouldn’t be praised or condemned. I want to take a moment to look at what went wrong and where to go from here.
Much like at the last Asian Cup, China fell to the first good team they came up against in the knockout round. Where there is room for blame, Marcello Lippi probably comes in for the lion share, as his tactics once again left a lot of fans scratching their heads. Beyond last night, the question has to be asked if Lippi was the right manager for the side. The 70 year old Italian picked a conservative, older side going into the tournament, relying on a number of Guangzhou Evergrande players who he previously managed for multiple seasons and who he was confident in.
Lippi, who was so close to being manager of China before Alain Perrin took over, was brought in as a stabilizing force after things went bad in the initial World Cup qualifying matches. The China job was a semi-retirement for Lippi and a lot of the roster decisions made had me wondering if they were his own or if he was allowing himself to be heavily influenced (or just turning things over) by the CFA. When China was knocked out of World Cup qualifying in 2017, it seemed like Lippi had done everything he could with the side and it would have been a good point for him to step aside. He didn’t and therefore the rebuild of the national team that was probably needed never took place.
It was oft mentioned that his side at the Asian Cup was the oldest of any team in the competition. Of the 10 players over the age of 30 in the roster (there were also six players who were 29), seven played key roles throughout the tournament. China has no young break out player coming out of this tournament like Sun Ke in 2015, Zhang Linpeng in 2011, Mao Jianqing in 2007 or even Zheng Zhi in 2004 (the last time China won a knockout game at the Asian Cup).
It needs to be said that the current crop of U23 players is very weak and few can compare to. On top of that, Lippi has generally shown a preference for older players, bringing in guys close to or over 30 like Piao Cheng, Chi Zhongguo, Mirahmetjan_Muzepper, Xiao Zhi and Tan Long. While he has also given a few caps to young players, the rebuild that many wanted, including myself, didn’t happen.
So that leaves us with the question, where does China go from here? Here’s what I’d propose.
- Start the rebuild now!
This time around don’t wait. For any upcoming matches, limit the over 30 players to two or three who are capable, ready and willing to mentor the younger guys in the side. Guys like Zhang Linpeng (well, he’s almost 30) and Hao Junmin, not Gao Lin and Xiao Zhi. I disagree that there should have been that many young players at the Asian Cup, so few have ever been given a real chance, but that needs to change. It’s time to give the kids a chance
- A new, young manager
And on this point, I’d love it if he was Chinese. Unfortunately, there aren’t that many contenders anymore. Li Tie is one who comes to mind, especially because he has an independent streak, but he had plenty of issues at Hebei (then again, more senior managers have as well) and I’m not sure he has many friends in the CFA. If it is a foreigner, it should be someone who has handled a rebuild and/or is known for bringing along young talent.
- Limit public expectations
This one might be the hardest, as it requires a Chinese quasi-government organization to be transparent and open with the public, perhaps an impossibility. And at this point, could expectations for the national team be any lower? When it comes to booking friendlies, take the team overseas for at least 30% of the games, find teams that are on equal footing or slightly better, that means no more friendlies against teams at either end of the extremes (like Colombia and Myanmar). It’s important that its clear this is a rebuild and that there will be experiments and slip ups along the way, but there has to be an end in sight.
- Clear goalposts
Along the lines of having a clear end in sight, let’s stop talking about the madness of becoming a football superpower by 2050. There needs to be a road map (again, one that they let the public know about), with a 10 year plan divided up into two year segments with achievable goals in place. Don’t change it based upon who wins the next World Cup or changes at the CFA, make a plan that everyone agrees on and stick to it.
- Keep the U23 rule, encourage more development at club level
I imagine this is where I lost a lot of you, but give me a chance. The U23 rule was slapdashedly put into place a few years ago and this crop of U23 players hasn’t been able to fully benefit yet. The policy had its positives, including making it necessary for clubs to have full youth academies, something that amazingly some CSL clubs didn’t have not all that long ago. The focus should now be on clubs developing their own “homegrown” players, instead of buying U23s. Maybe we’ll finally start seeing the needed investment in grassroots that should have happened years ago. Again, this is about sticking to a path and a policy instead of going off in another tangent, the success or failure of this policy cannot be determined today, but will be more apparent a few more years down the line, let’s give it time.
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