THE last time China hosted Qatar, in a 2018 World Cup second-round qualifier in Xi’an in March, Team Dragon won 2-0, thereby advancing to the final round. And when they take on the Gulf nation in Kunming on November 15, new coach Marcelo Lippi will expect his men to do an encore. Even that may not suffice while a defeat will smash their thin Russia hopes. It will put the Chinese Football Association (CFA) under added pressure.
World Cup-winning Italian coach Lippi recently replaced Chinese Gao Hongbo reportedly on a €20m yearly salary, something the fans cannot fully digest. Despite being a successful sports nation, China’s football team has fared poorly over the years and many doubt whether the team needs a big name at the helm or some solid work at the base level.
China’s only World Cup appearance was in South Korea and Japan in 2002 when they, under current ASPIRE Academy ambassador Bora Milutinovic, crashed out in the group stage without scoring a goal. The Chinese Super League has been in news for the huge money involved and the famous players like Jackson Martinez, Graziano Pelle and Ramirez it has attracted, but its impact is hardly felt on the national team. Lippi became the third coach to oversee the 2018 World Cup qualification as the CFA had sacked Frenchman Alain Perrin, former Qatar Olympic team coach, earlier.
Lippi, who guided Guangzhou Evergrande to three Chinese Super League titles and 2013 Asian Football Confederation Champions League triumph, is the biggest name to have ever managed the country’s national team. But China are at the bottom of Group A with just one point after four matches, which prompted the 68-year-old to admit that it would be tough for them to progress.
“We aren’t in a good position, but we aren’t completely out of hope. I saw some balance in the last four games and no team was clearly better than China,” said Lippi, who guided his country to the 2006 World Cup triumph in Germany.
“The players need to work as a team and, without holding anything back, must help team-mates when there’re difficulties.
“I hope we can regain confidence in the next match against Qatar. If we can’t achieve our goals, then we’ll focus on the forthcoming Asian Cup (to be played in the UAE in 2019),” added Lippi.
And perhaps the 2022 World Cup as well. China’s President Xi Jinping, an avid fan of the game, has ambitious plans for the nation, including getting 50 million children to practise the sport by the end of the decade.
And to attract them, a consistently-performing national team is the need of the hour. Like the engine of a train, it has to carry the country’s entire football activities forward. That is where Lippi’s stature and experience can make a difference. But as with all coaches, he too must deliver results. And the former Juventus coach will expect them to come as early as in the match against Qatar.