Sport

An offer he couldn’t refuse

One of Italy’s top football coaches is lured to Guangzhou

Xu signs ‘football’s Paul Newman’

“My arrival may be the most important thing for China today,” Marcello Lippi told a televised press conferen­­­­­ce last week. It was quite a statement. The Italian football coach seemed to be suggesting that his decision to take the manager’s job at Guangzhou Evergrande was an event of such extraordinary consequence that it outranked a territorial dispute in the South China Sea, growing fears about a rapid economic slowdown and even the prolonged fallout from the purge of Bo Xilai.

WiC suspects Lippi’s remark got a little lost in translation. What he (more likely) meant is that his arrival is the most important thing to have happened to Chinese football for a while. And although it still suggests a pretty well-preened ego, it’s a verdict that many might agree with.

The 64 year-old has proved himself to be one of the world’s most successful soccer coaches. Nicknamed ‘the Paul Newman of football’ – a silver-haired resemblance to the actor – Lippi won the Champions League with Juventus and the World Cup with Italy. That means he is also “the highest profile coach to make the lucrative move to China,” reckons AFP.

And it will be lucrative. According to Guangzhou Daily and other local media, Lippi will be on a package worth €10 million a year. That far exceeds the pay of China’s erstwhile biggest scalp – the coach Jose Antonio Camacho who was lured to manage the national team for €3 million a year (see WiC118).

Mind you, Lippi won’t get all of that cash. At his own discretion he will be giving some of it to the three other coaching staff he’s bringing with him.

It says something of the importance of Lippi’s arrival that his debut press conference was broadcast live on state TV. As we have reported ad infinitum, professional football in China specialises in scoring own goals – both on and off the pitch. Corruption, match-fixing, player violence and disappointing performance from the national team are now expected as a matter-of-course. For a sample of our articles outlining the game’s woeful track record see issues 31, 78 and 113.

So recruiting a personage of Lippi’s stature is part of an effort to rebuild confidence in soccer, as well as raise the Chinese game to a new standard.

“You have to admit that Super League and Chinese football, because of Lippi’s participation, has entered a new era,” Sports Weekly enthused to its readers.

Surprisingly, it is also Lippi’s first coaching assignment outside Italy. He doesn’t seem too concerned about culture shock. “I will lead this team with my extraordinary passion and most professional knowledge,” he told the press in another burst of modest self-appraisal. “I will bring the Italian football philosophy to China.”

Lippi was brought to China on the private jet of Guangzhou Evergrande’s owner, Xu Jiayin. The property mogul was ranked as China’s seventh richest tycoon by Forbes last year, and he has made a personal commitment to turning around the fortunes of Chinese football.

So far he seems to be making a reasonable stab at it. Xu purchased his club after it was demoted to a lower division as a punishment for match-fixing. He renamed the team after his property firm (Evergrande) and injected Rmb300 million in new capital. Thanks to that financial firepower, Evergrande won promotion. A spending spree ensued, culminating in the transfer of Argentina’s Dario Conca for $10 million (plus an annual salary of $7 million). Conca and other big name signings then won the Chinese Super League last October (with a comfortable four games to spare).

The rehabilitation of the club has continued. Last week Guangzhou Evergrande topped its group in the Asian Champions League, making it the only team from China to advance to the knockout stages.

Somewhat like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich – for whom winning the European Champions League last Saturday was the ultimate goal – Xu wants to win the Asian equivalent. This would serve as vindication for all his spending, and prove that Chinese teams can compete at the top level in the region.

That, it seems, is why Lippi was engaged. Xu has been talking to the Italian for a while, and impressed Lippi with his desire to turn Evergrande into “an international football club,” according to Sports Weekly. He arrives on a two-and-a- half-year contract, having reputedly turning down an offer to coach Qatar.

What of former manager, Lee Jang-soo, the South Korean who had led Evergrande to last year’s league title?

After a falling out with Conca and three of the club’s other South American stars, Lee was no longer thought to be the man for the job.

However, his sacking was about as Confucian as you could get. Xu organised a large banquet and publicly praised Lee’s ability and hard work. But then he concluded: “We are very reluctant to let Lee leave but due to the club’s development needs we have to part with him and adjust the head coach.”

Whereupon presumably Lee finished his coffee and headed outside to look for a taxi.

Of course, other managers sacked in this way might well have been fuming about such a mercurial owner.

But Lee seems to have responded wholly graciously. “I understand the club’s decision and in the future I will continue to focus on the progress of the club,” he responded. “Back in Korea I will watch the team’s games. I wish Guangzhou Evergrande a better future.”


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