The emperor awaits?

Lippi steps aside at Evergrande

Former Italian soccer player Cannavaro holds the letter of appointment during a news conference announcing him as the new coach of Chinese Super League champion Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao Football Club, in Guangzhou

Cannavaro: new to Guangzhou

Wilf McGuinness was promoted from the reserve team to become manager of Manchester United in 1969. He replaced Matt Busby, in charge for a quarter of a century and a legendary coach who had won the European Cup the year before. But it wasn’t a straightforward handover. Busby ‘moved upstairs’ becoming a director and retaining much of his power. That meant that senior players still went to him instead of the new boss to voice their concerns.

In one particular case, star man George Best was caught sleeping away from the team hotel before a game. McGuinness approached Busby, who said he would sort it out. But Busby did nothing and Best played badly (United lost to their archrival of that era, Leeds United). “The torch had been passed on. But Wilf grabbed the lighted end,” football pundit Eamon Dunphy concluded famously.

Clearly, a top manager handpicking an ally as his successor doesn’t necessarily guarantee a smooth transition (as Manchester United experienced once more last year). So Chinese football pundits have been discussing an interesting parallel at a top local club – in this case, a pair of World Cup winners from Italy.

Marcello Lippi announced last week he was stepping down after guiding Guangzhou Evergrande to a fourth successive Chinese Super League title. Fabio Cannavaro, Lippi’s captain during Italy’s fourth Word Cup victory in 2006, is replacing him. Cannavaro has been named “executive manager” while Lippi is to retain the “head coach” title for the remainder of a three-year contract he signed in February.

The 67 year-old Lippi has called time on active management because of health and family reasons, explained Guangzhou Evergrande, which is backed by a real estate developer of the same name, as well as internet giant Alibaba (see WiC241). Cannavaro comes to China with little management experience, which makes his appointment a bit more surprising. But the club says the succession plan makes good sense. “Lippi wants the club to develop sustainably. That’s why he recommended a younger coach with abundant playing experience,” Evergrande said.

According to The Paper, an internet news website, Lippi has surrounded himself with backroom staff from Italy since arriving in Guangzhou. He makes €10 million ($12.5 million) a year personally while his “Italian gang”, as it has been christened by local pundits, is on a payroll of €2 million combined.

The appointment of Cannavaro should ensure that Lippi’s compatriots keep their jobs. But the media is more concerned with the new players that Evergrande might now buy. In the press conference unveiling Cannavaro, the Chinese champions vowed to “upgrade” the foreign players in next year’s squad. However, Evergrande has also made it clear that its top executives would play the lead role on player transfers. To many Chinese sports journalists this hinted at tensions between Evergrande and its Italian employees. That’s because Lippi’s son Davide Lippi works as a football agent, and he’s been behind a number of Evergrande’s acquisitions in the transfer market.

For instance, with Lippi junior working on the deals, Evergrande signed Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Diamanti from Italian clubs for a combined €12 million early this year, according to the football media. But the expensive additions violated Evergrande owner Xu Jiayin’s instructions not to buy foreign players who are over 30, the Shanghai Morning Post has suggested. Both Italian internationals have struggled to sparkle since arriving in China, with Evergrande failing to defend their Asian Champions League crown and the team also needing a draw in the last match of this season to claim the domestic title once more. The newspaper has predicted Davide Lippi will no longer be used in Evergrande’s future transfers.

Overlapping interests between head coaches and their favourite football agents aren’t unique to Chinese football.

But Sohu Sports says that Evergrande’s managerial reshuffle is evidence of the rebalancing of power between Lippi and the club’s owner, real estate tycoon Xu Jiayin.

Perhaps. But Lippi has also told the Chinese media that when his current contract runs out in Guangzhou (at which point he will be 70), he is interested in taking up the head coach role for China’s national team.

Whether this happens pretty much depends on how Evergrande perform in the coming seasons, Sohu Sports suggests. But the suspicion elsewhere is that Cannavaro has been appointed at Evergrande to put Lippi in prime position to take over much sooner from China’s current coach Alain Perrin.

“Lippi is obviously behind Cannavaro’s appointment,” writes Cameron Wilson at soccer blog Wild East Football. “It’s set up so Lippi is his mentor and that is good for Cannavaro but not necessarily Evergrande. I expect China will flop at the Asia Cup, Perrin’s head will roll, then Lippi will be able to hold the China national team job and the Evergrande technical director job concurrently without much hassle. I have a feeling this is exactly what will happen.”

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