Following the Chinese national men’s soccer team’s poor performances in the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers, Italian Marcello Lippi has been hired as head coach by the Chinese Football Association (CFA). The move comes 10 days after former coach Gao Hongbo announced his resignation in the wake of the team’s 0-2 capitulation in Uzbekistan.
Lippi will take home an annual salary of 15 million euros ($16.3 million) for his new role. His appointment, however, is unlikely to revive China’s chances of World Cup qualification. China currently sits at the bottom of Group A, having taken a single point from four games played.
Fans have also expressed skepticism about the incoming manager’s ability to reverse the fortunes of the national team. Highly paid foreign coaches are no longer a novelty in Chinese soccer, but previous appointments have brought mixed results.
I am not saying that Lippi — fondly known as the “silver fox” among fans — is not worth the price tag. Yet his appointment is uninspiring, partially because it fails to address the deep-rooted barriers to the success of professional soccer in China. Spending extravagantly on a big-time manager only serves to gloss over the infrastructural issues the sport faces.
Soccer is China’s most-watched sport, but its FIFA world ranking is a source of embarrassment for many fans. The most recent ranking updates placed the country in 84th place, sandwiched between Guatemala and Kenya. Ever since the reform-era government first exhorted Chinese soccer to “break out of Asia and enter the world stage,” the country has spent several decades experimenting with a number of solutions.
The first was the expansion and marketization of the sport across China. However, despite nearly 30 years of development, the level of play in the professional leagues has so far failed to live up to the country’s vast potential. Worse still, the league has been plagued by a number of serious corruption scandals, with dozens of officials, players, and referees facing jail or lifelong bans. Indeed, fans have become so distrustful of the soccer industry that as news of Lippi’s appointment broke, some outlets speculated about collusion between the CFA and Evergrande Real Estate Group, the company behind Lippi’s previous club position and owners of domestic powerhouse Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao F.C.
A second approach has focused on bringing in foreign coaching talent. In 1992, Klaus Schlappner of Germany became the first foreign head coach hired to manage the Chinese national team since the start of the economic reforms of the late 1970s. Since then, the CFA has spent considerable amounts of money on a string of overseas coaches. Despite its pedigree, China has only qualified for the World Cup once, under Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic in 2002 — when the team failed to score a single goal and lost all three of its matches.
China’s willingness to accommodate foreign coaching methods has previously been combined with a drive to send young players abroad to learn the trade. In 1993, the CFA set up the Jianlibao youth team. Over a period of five years, the team took three trips to South America. Playing in two of soccer’s superpower nations — Brazil and Argentina — they notched an impressive 110 wins, 25 ties, and 30 defeats. When it returned home two years later, the team faced off against China’s professional league teams, racking up 21 wins, 4 ties, and only a single loss. But in 1998, due to confusion over players’ property rights, the Jianlibao team was disbanded, and its players were quickly divvied up among various clubs.
The number of false starts over the years has led to a common complaint among fans: Why, in a country of 1.3 billion people, is it so hard to find 11 decent soccer players? The question, however, is based on unsound premises. In reality, the national squad is not selected from all the 1.3 billion people living in the country. Rather, it is assembled from a group of fewer than 10,000 soccer players.
In 2011, China only had 8,000 registered soccer players. By comparison, neighboring Vietnam — a country with a population of around 90 million — boasted 50,000, and Japan had 500,000. As a case in point, the city I live in, Suzhou, has a population comparable to that of the Netherlands: a little over 10 million people. While the Netherlands has more than 3,400 professional and semi-professional soccer clubs, Suzhou has only one.
In my opinion, for as long as China is only able to promote soccer to thousands of people and not millions, it will be consigned to the sporting wilderness. Despite the initiatives launched so far, there has been only limited success in broadening the sport’s appeal across the country. This reduces the size of the talent pool and has a number of negative corollary effects, such as a substandard youth training system. It is still quite rare for children in China to play competitive soccer, which means that a lot of prospective talent goes unearthed.
Even if we all realize that training the younger generation is key to developing the sport nationally, several serious problems still remain. One such problem is the level of coaching available. At the outset, let me say that the effort put forth by many grassroots-level Chinese soccer coaches is truly awe-inspiring. They are out there rain or shine, earning barely enough to get by and fully dedicating their lives to youth soccer. But having the right attitude is one thing, while having the right skill set is something else entirely.
Thankfully, in the past few years more people have realized the importance of youth training as a foundation for the future of sport. Take, for example, my city’s sole soccer club, Suzhou Dongwu. The club has only been around for a year, but their youth team, Suzhou All-in, has a longer history and now caters to four different age groups.
Suzhou All-in currently employs more than 60 trainers, and most conspicuous among them is Dutch coach Todd Wijnstekers, whose father, Ben, captained his country during the 1980s. Modeling the club after the youth system the elder Wijnstekers laid down back home at Feyenoord F.C., Todd has brought a great deal of technical innovation to Chinese soccer. He has also had an enormous impact on fellow coaches’ concepts and ideas about the sport.
According to Fan Weifeng, a coach at Suzhou All-in, Wijnstekers has greatly diversified the way young players are drilled in basic skills. One early example was made obvious to him as players were practicing two-man passing: “Can you imagine?” he asked excitedly. “Something as simple as that, and they’ve got hundreds of different drills for it. You could train the kids for a year and never have to use the same drill twice!”
Initiatives that bring world-class innovation to youth soccer are key to ensuring that China’s future professionals build on the work of previous generations. They also raise the question of whether the 15 million euros lining Lippi’s pockets would not be better spent on hiring several hundred new youth coaches like Wijnstekers, building a world-class youth academy, or bringing grassroots soccer to thousands of new schools. Lippi is a talented coach, but if the powers that be keep ignoring bottom-up reform, he will inherit the same problems as his predecessors.
(Header image: Marcello Lippi (left) poses with Cai Zhenhua, the deputy director of the General Administration of Sport of China, during the new term opening ceremony at Evergrande Football School in Guangzhou, Guangdong province, Oct. 9, 2012. Jiang Huchuan/VCG)