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Jul 28, 2013

China see brighter future in Lippi

After witnessing China score two goals in the last ten minutes to earn a 3-3 draw with Japan at Seoul World Cup Stadium on the opening weekend of the 2013 East Asian Championship on July 21, one Japanese journalist remarked just a little sourly "they're celebrating as if they had won the World Cup."

Despite the rivalry and proximity, the two teams travel in different circles these days. Like boys from the same class at school now making their very different ways in the world: Japan have the European stars, the continental championships, the almost automatic World Cup qualifications and the youth development. China don't.

But when their paths occasionally cross (and that is not common these days - Japan has played three friendlies against South Korea since their last game with China at the 2010 East Asian Cup), the meetings can be as angry as a Wayne Rooney who has been told that he is not the first choice striker.

Both teams came into this tournament on the back of three straight defeats. But while Japan's setbacks came far away from home in South America against some of the best teams in the world in Brazil, Italy and Mexico, China's experience was slightly different. All three losses came at home and while one was at the hands of the Netherlands, the others were Uzbekistan and then a Thailand outfit who thrashed their hosts to the tune of 5-1.

It is usually Bangkok that plays host to young travelers who come and paint the town red, but this time an inexperienced Thailand team went overseas and had quite the party to leave the hosts with the hangover and the mess to clear up.

It was so bad that television commentators thanked the victors for showing what Chinese football had become, university teams challenged the national team to see who was better and the game went into one of its regular crisis modes. There's no point in going over it all again.

The Chinese economy may be slowing down but the growth rate in articles talking about what is going wrong with the country's football scene continues to rise. The long and short of it is that Jose Antonio Camacho was fired by the Chinese FA. The former Real Madrid and Spain boss had been in the job less than two years but achieved little, especially in relation to his salary.

So, it has been a tough few weeks for the national team coming on the back of a tough few years. With that in mind, a late fightback against a bitter and better rival was very welcome and if the celebrations were a little over the top, then it is understandable.

There is a man, however, who already works in China who knows what real World Cup celebrations look like. And not only has he won the biggest prize in sport, he has won the Chinese Super League title. Marcello Lippi is the biggest name coach currently working in Asian football and is the one that the China FA wants to take on the biggest challenge in Asian football - taking the Middle Kingdom into the Asian elite once and for all. When Guangzhou's season ends, there is a growing expectation that Lippi will become the coach of China.

There are obstacles. The 1996 UEFA Champions League winner has a job. He was brought to East Asia in May 2012 to win the Asian Champions League for Guangzhou Evergrande. At the moment, Guangzhou, who have spent over $70 million in the last three years or so in their bid for domestic and now continental glory, are preparing for the quarter-finals and are odds-on to become the first Chinese team since 1989 to become kings of Asia. It would be cause for major celebrations if it happened.

In domestic terms, the season has ended. After just 17 games, the Reds are 13 points clear after dropping just four points, scoring 47 goals and conceding just eight. As Australian coach Graham Arnold said recently after his Central Coast Mariners team was knocked out of the Asian Champions League by Evergrande, the team are head and shoulders above the rest at home.

"They (Guangzhou) have got Marcello Lippi, a wonderful coach, one of the best in the world," said Arnold. "To see the level that he has got this team playing at, Chinese football should eventually do the wise thing by getting him to be the national team coach because they are playing at a totally different level structurally and discipline-wise than the other Chinese teams that I've seen over the last few years."

The question is when a third successive domestic title becomes official, not if. Lippi's job is no longer about winning in China, it never was. If Lippi delivers the Asian title, he will have done all he has been asked to do. This is his second attempt. Whether it is successful or not, a third may not be too attractive.

Lippi has said that he will not take the job before his contract with Guangzhou finishes at the end of 2014 and told ESPN recently that he had not been contacted in regards to the job. Despite that, there is growing pressure on the FA to get their man and given the way things can work in China, this means Guangzhou will not stand in the Italian's way. They won't make a fuss. The contract will not be an issue. Guangzhou, currently dominant in China, will give their biggest prize to the country.

The desire for Lippi is understandable. He is one of the most famous coaches in the world. He knows Chinese football after what will be 18 months in the country and has reasonable experience with Asian football. More than that, his Guangzhou team provides the bulk of the players for the national team with six starting against Japan. On and off the record, those stars speak very highly of the Italian.

That does not mean he is the right man for the job. Hiring international coaches is no guarantee of success and can be an expensive road to failure. There is no evidence to suggest that Gao Hongbo, the man fired in 2011 to make way for Camacho, would have done any worse than the ex-Spain and Real Madrid boss and quite a bit to suggest he would have done better and at a fraction of the salary too.

The CFA seems to have put more thought in how to get out of the Camacho contract in the least expensive way possible than whether he was actually the right man for the job when they hired him.

But just because Camacho failed (as did plenty before him), it doesn't mean that Lippi would too and few would argue against his appointment. He has the local knowledge, the connection with more than half of the team, the reputation and the resume. But with no World Cup on the horizon, although the 2015 Asian Cup comes soon after, it will all depend on whether he has the desire.

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