A career-ending challenge?

Spaniard accepts most difficult job in football – coaching China

A career-ending challenge?

“I’ll have them eating paella in no time”: new coach Camacho

What is the toughest job in the world? Head of the Greek inland revenue? Image consultant to Dick Fuld? John Boehner’s Republican Party whip?

WiC proposes another candidate: manager of China’s national football team. As we have previously written, this much-derided role is the embodiment of the ‘poisoned chalice’ (a term coined by Benedict of Nursia, a sixth century exorcist).

Rather appropriate, really: China’s new football supremo arrives in a role for which more than a few ghosts need laying to rest…

Jokes about China’s soccer squad abound (see WiC8). Perennially ill-disciplined, a new low was reached in June when the Chinese team was beaten 4-1 by Oman (population 3.6 million). This prompted the coach of China’s (much better) ladies team to offer to loan the men a couple of her strikers. And to add insult to injury, a Dalian newspaper proposed a Rmb100,000 bet that its own hacks could beat the national team in a challenge match.

But on Sunday a new boss was announced. Out went Gao Hongbo – a former player who had got the job in 2009 after his predecessor failed to qualify for the World Cup – and in came the internationally-acclaimed coach, Jose Antonio Camacho.

The Spaniard certainly has the credentials to take on football’s biggest challenge. Camacho played for Real Madrid, then twice coached the La Liga side before managing the Spanish national team for four years, making the quarter finals of Euro 2000 and the 2002 World Cup.

Camacho will reputedly earn €3 million a year to turn around the team’s fortunes. With his coaching staff too, the annual salary bill rises to €4.5 million, say local media.

The 56 year-old’s goal is to ensure China qualifies for the 2014 World Cup (the nation has only made it to a single World Cup, back in 2002). He admitted the task would not be easy, but said he’d been “married to pressure” since the age of 17.

At a press event on Sunday, Camacho also noted: “Although the current level of Chinese football is not high, it has big potential for development. I have some experience in training young players in Spain, and I will bring that to China to help the youth become competitive enough to enter the senior squad.”

Surprisingly, the man who drove the decision to hire Camacho was a real estate tycoon. Disgusted by the sorry state of the game, Wanda Group’s owner Wang Jianlin earlier this year offered to spend his own money to revive national pride, and he will now pay Camacho’s salary.

Wang says he is confident that he has made the right choice in the Spaniard. As he told China Daily: “He has been at the helm of six La Liga clubs and as far as I know he placed 26th in last year’s world ranking of elite coaches. I think no Chinese would be among the top 500.”

The head of the Chinese Football Association Wei Di concurred that under Camacho’s guidance the team would “rapidly improve”.

We wait with bated breath.

But surprisingly, not all fans are happy with the decision to hire the Spaniard. At a friendly international match against Jamaica – soon after the announcement – some held up banners proclaiming that “We don’t need a foreign coach”. And, in fact, the national team under Gao did not do so badly – winning 23 international matches and rising in the FIFA rankings from 108 to 73.

But with a massive population – and a formidable sporting record in the Olympics – it still rankles many Chinese that a world class soccer team eludes them.

“Soccer is the most popular game in the world and China is an important country in the world. The national side belongs to the country and the people so I wish it could get support from all Chinese people and the media,” Camacho told Xinhua, hopefully.

Dalian’s Wang also wants his compatriots to get behind the new coach. Saying he finds criticism of the decision to hire a foreigner “strange”, he entreated: “If you are a real Chinese, a real Chinese soccer fan, please support Camacho.”

But can you buy success? The football world will be watching closely to see if Camacho – who has a three year contract – will find the job a poison chalice.

Given that he and his technical team are being paid roughly 40 times more than former coach Gao, fans will expect a commensurately drastic improvement on the soccer pitch.

Keeping track: in WiC118 we reported on the multi-million dollar hiring of top Spanish football coach Jose Antonio Camacho. The former Real Madrid manager’s new job: to turn around the fortunes of China’s woeful national football team. But any early expectations from fans have already been dashed. In last week’s home World Cup qualifier, China lost 1-0 to a 10 man Iraq team. That puts China third in its group, making qualification for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil look tough. According to the Beijing Evening News, thousands of livid supporters surrounded the team bus after the game shouting “Chinese team, dog faeces; Chinese team, disbanded”. The newspaper said that the chant was translated into Spanish for Camacho, who looked very solemn for the rest of the journey. (Oct 21, 2011)

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