Guangzhou going global
In the city of Guangzhou, a young boy lay ill in hospital but he was smiling. His wish had been granted and the head coach of the local team, the champions of China, was standing by his bed and soon the two were chatting like they had known each other for years. Lee Jang-Soo listened to the fan playing the flute and then did the rounds - talking to staff, family and other patients. After Lee's departure - as well as the shirts, balls and signatures - smiles and a feeling of gratitude remained.
That is the feeling of pretty much the whole city as Lee was fired last week by a Guangzhou Evergrande aiming to become ever grander. At least the gruff South Korean, whose passion, honesty and professionalism was respected by all in Chinese football, can console himself with the fact that it took a World Cup-winning coach to force him out. Not many in Asia can say that. Hikmat Irgashev was the last - the Uzbek was succeeded by Luiz Felipe Scolari in 2009 at Bunyodkor.
Former Brazil boss Scolari was, if reports are to be believed, paid even more than Lippi's €10 million a year but soon became bored in Central Asia and did little to justify his sky-high salary. China, however, is no Uzbekistan, and Guangzhou, formerly known as Canton, is no Tashkent; it remains to be seen if Lippi is, in Asian terms at least, a Scolari or not.
The Brazilian would recognise the situation. A team dominant at home through the serious splashing of cash want to expand their supremacy. Guangzhou already attract 40,000 for home games on a regular basis. In fact, in terms of results, there is not actually that much for the former Juventus and Inter coach to improve upon. This is no club in crisis. In his first season in 2010, Lee led Guangzhou to promotion. He won the 2011 title by a margin of 15 points. When he was fired, Guangzhou were top of the league and group winners in the 2012 Asian Champions League. Rarely has a coach been dismissed after such success.
That is not to say that everything was completely rosy in the Guangzhou garden. Every club has issues and, of late, the Asian Champions League caused a few headaches for Lee both on and off the pitch.
This may be the club's first appearance in the tournament but the boss - Xu Jiayin, China's seventh richest man - wants the title. While the Reds won their group, the one of death, they stumbled through in the last minute of the last game thanks to a Dario Conca penalty. It wasn't quite as a spectacular a strike as Steven Gerrard's drive at the same stage of the European version against Olympiakos back in December 2004, but it could be just as meaningful - Liverpool went on to win the trophy after being seconds away from early elimination.
Overall, Guangzhou were disappointing, yet the Asian Champions League is replete with stories of teams that sleepwalked their way through the first round only to wake up in the knockout stages and return to bed with the title. As an Italian, Lippi would be able to identify with that. With Guangzhou's second-round match coming next week at home to the lively FC Tokyo, Lee's greater Asian knowledge could have paid dividends.
Winning the Asian trophy is only the first step in the quest to become a genuine global force, and the journey continues with the Club World Cup and beyond that. It was certainly possible that Lee could have delivered the continental success, but there is something that, for all his passion and determination, he could not do and it is something that Lippi half-achieved just by signing the contract.
Owner Xu explained what everyone already knew. "It was hard for us to make the decision to let him go, but only by hiring a more high-profile coaching team can the club really develop into an international team." That is Lippi's job. Success may be demanded but the foundations are already in place to that end. Lippi's real work comes in raising Guangzhou's profile.
Some of that comes with foreign players. It is widely accepted that the club already has the best overseas contingent in China and perhaps the whole of Asia. The expensive South American trio of Dario Conca, Cleo and Muriqui has recently been added to with the signing of Lucas Barrios from Borussia Dortmund - a deal that took the club's spending to around $70 million in just over two years and these stars complement a host of China internationals. Chinese teams are allowed five overseas players - one must be from Asia - but that could be increased: Guangzhou want another slot added. A proposal was rejected by the Chinese FA earlier this year but with some of the richer clubs interested, the issue will resurface sooner rather than later.
Lee has previous when it comes to falling out with players - as happened with Beijing Guoan - especially those he feels are not pulling their weight. He especially hated losing to Korean teams and publicly criticised the South Americans following the recent home Champions League defeat at the hands of Jeonbuk Motors. He felt that complacency was setting in. There were early signs of that when Cleo, Conca and Muriqui all reported back for January pre-season training late. Conca, one of the highest-paid players in the world and the star of the club, was then banned for nine games for publicly voicing his discontent at being substituted.
He is less likely to do something similar with Lippi. Perhaps the greatest motivation for the foreign contingent is not just that the Italian has arrived and not just that he has dealt with some of the biggest names in the world of football over the years but the fact that they know he will be looking to bring in his own players and they are going to be foreign. When it comes to attracting the big names, Lippi has the edge on any coach in Asia. With the money on offer and the standing that the coach has in the game, Guangzhou can now attract the best in the business.
Lippi certainly believes that has happened in the coaching position. "My arrival should be a big deal and the most important thing in China today," Lippi said. "I will start my work today, the same way I did in Juventus and Inter. The most important thing is to bring the Italian football concepts to China."
It is unlikely that Lippi will ever be as loved as Lee, but his job is not to win over the local population. His job is to take Guangzhou to the world and he has already started.