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China takes aim at soccer superpower status

China's newly appointed national football team coach Marcello Lippi speaks during a news conference at a hotel in Beijing, Friday, Oct. 28, 2016.

Andy Wong/AP

Beneath an enormous crystal chandelier in a Beijing ballroom, Marcello Lippi held up his new uniform, a soccer jersey the colour of the Chinese flag, and offered a wan smile.

He had plenty of reason to celebrate, not least a reported $29-million salary that has made him the sport's best-paid coach.

He had even more reason to worry. On his shoulders now rest the hopes of a billion-strong Chinese and their soccer-mad chief, President Xi Jinping, whose ambitions for soccer glory have fuelled a prodigal scramble to buy success.

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China's previous coach was unceremoniously dumped after failing to achieve a single win in China's first four World Cup qualifying games, including a humiliating loss at home to the Syrian team.

Enter Lippi, who led the Italian team to World Cup victory in 2006 and has now suddenly become the most important figure in China's big-money sporting scene.

His first task: offer some hope. Six qualifying games remain and the team still has a chance, he said Friday in his first public remarks.

"To qualify for the 2018 World Cup is not impossible," he said.

"What we need to do is unite everyone" in hopes of "trying to achieve this objective." And after that, "we will consider the long-term development issues of Chinese soccer."

Those issues come down to one problem. China has appeared in the World Cup exactly once, in 2002, and failed to score a single goal. It has since surpassed every other country outside the United States in economic heft. It has won an Olympic gold-medal count and been host to world leadership summits.

What it wants now is respect on the soccer pitch. It wants to be a global soccer superpower. And it's prepared to pay.

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Four of the best-paid soccer players on Earth now play for Chinese domestic clubs, British media have tabulated, and deep-pocketed Chinese have gone on a buying spree for marquee names abroad, too.

Italy's AC Milan and England's Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion are all now in Chinese hands. Chinese firms have bought stakes in Manchester City and Birmingham City, and have expressed interest in Liverpool. Some $2.7-billion has been spent by Chinese acquirers on foreign clubs in the past two years alone.

Now the country has added one of the sport's most respected coaches to its national team. In 2013, ESPN FC placed Lippi 15th on a list of all-time greatest managers. He's also brought victory to Chinese professional soccer during three seasons with Guangzhou Evergrande, which he coached to China's first Asian Champions League title in 23 years.

"Mr. Lippi is basically the best coach that they could possibly get. They have the money, and have decided to spare no expense. From that point of view it's quite a logical move," said Cameron Wilson, founding editor of Wild East Football, a website that covers Chinese soccer.

The problem, of course, is that coaches can be hired from abroad. National team players cannot.

"He can only work with the players he's been given," said Mark Dreyer, a former Sky Sports soccer reporter and founder of chinasportsinsider.com. "You can't bring in a Ronaldo or a Messi."

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As for the players he has, "he can maybe improve the current squad by 10 per cent, but they're basically not strong enough to qualify by any objective measure." He rates the likelihood of China failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup as 99.9 per cent.

Why, then, open the treasure chests for Lippi who, one cheeky Chinese writer calculated, will earn more than 40 ounces worth of gold a day?

"Many things here cannot be explained by normal market rules," said Wu Celi, a Chinese sportswriter and author of China Soccer: The Inside Story.

National pride is at stake. So is political favour. Most of Lippi's salary reportedly comes from the billionaire owners behind Guangzhou Evergrande, his former team, in the form of an "adviser" fee. If that money can secure even a marginally better chance at a soccer victory that would put a smile on the face of the President – who has openly said he wants China to bring home a World Cup – it may be a price worth paying. In China, the line between politics and business remains thin.

Problem is, "all the money in the world won't buy those results," said Tom Byer, a Japan-based consultant and author who has consulted with the Chinese government on building its soccer program.

Sports aren't built from the top down. They start with children barely able to walk. "It's not so much about coaching. It's about the culture," Byer says. But for many Chinese parents of single children, the path to success lies not on the field but in the classroom. Educators view sport as a distraction.

"The reality is the technical level of most children who play even today in China is way, way below average," Byer said.

Rather than lust after an adult World Cup, he said, China should worry about the under-17 and under-20 tournaments, where its teams remain dismal, outplayed by much poorer neighbours in Myanmar and Vietnam.

There are signs China is turning attention to its youth. It has drafted a 50-point "Chinese football reform and development program." It wants kids playing soccer in 50,000 schools by 2025. It is preparing thousands of local trainers and hiring hundreds of foreign coaches.

But does it have the patience to succeed?

"The only way that China can really improve is to start with five-year-olds and train them the right way for 20 years," Dreyer said. Even then, "it doesn't mean they're going to beat everyone and win the World Cup. But they could perhaps be a top-30 team."

China stands reasonable odds of playing host to the 2030 World Cup. But by then, President Xi will be eight years past the expected 10-year term for a Chinese leader, and Lippi will be 82 years old.

Still, China's new coach need not wait that long for a certain kind of glory – his own. In his years coaching Guangzhou Evergrande, the team built a restaurant staffed by Italian chefs to cater to his needs.

Now, an entire nation kneels before his soccer savvy.

"The guy – it's like he's a god," Byer said.

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About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

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