Marcello Lippi's legacy remains intact, but success with China falls short
Forget England. The real impossible job in football is China, as Marcello Lippi knows well as he comes to the end of his two-and-a-bit years.
The Asian Cup that is currently taking place in the United Arab Emirates is his last chance to leave any kind of legacy in the world's most populous country. It has not been a smooth ride since the 2006 World Cup winner took the job in October 2016. Even Lippi's record and reputation does not mean that one coach can change much in the complex world of Chinese football.
Kyrgyzstan coach Aleksander Krestinin pointed that out before the two teams met in the opening game of the tournament, newly expanded from 16 to 24 teams.
"Obviously China has a very experienced coach who is a world champion," Krestinin said. "But he was not the world champion with China. We don't remember China winning anything in recent years."
Nobody does and the Asian Cup, at the end of which the 71 year-old will head to Italy and likely retirement, is unlikely. The quarterfinals would be satisfactory. That looked unlikely at half-time in the opening game with Kyrgyzstan. A goal down and second best, it took a dreadful mistake from the Central Asian goalkeeper for China to get back in the game.
Team Dragon improved to win 2-1 but for any fans hoping for a first continental title, it was not encouraging. A better performance on Friday against the Philippines, led by old rival Sven-Goran Eriksson is expected as is the win. Nobody wants to go into the final group game against South Korea needing anything.
Lippi, who led Guangzhou Evergrande to three Chinese Super League titles and one AFC Champions League was a relatively short-term appointment but the World Cup winning coach was expected to do something different. His remit was not just the Asian Cup but to put the underachieving Chinese national team in the right direction for years to come -- to find a path for the next guy. It is questionable as to whether he has achieved that.
"When I took the job two years ago I knew it was a big challenge for me," he said when asked about his legacy by ESPN FC.
The situation at the time was dire with Gao Hongbo resigning immediately after a loss to Uzbekistan meant just one point for the team in the first four games of the final stage of qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
"Fortunately we collected 11 points from the last six matches. We missed out [on the playoffs for Russia] by just one point," Lippi said.
It sounds good and there were wistful comments at the time as to what would have happened had Lippi been in place from the start. Such talk was slightly overblown as due to the dreadful start, there was little pressure on coach or players. Results were encouraging, however.
Positivity ebbed away in 2018. The year started with 10 goals conceded in two games against Wales and the Czech Republic. It ended with draws against Palestine, India and Jordan and a loss to Iraq. There was little sense that anything at all was being built -- a philosophy, a pool of players, a style of play. And when Lippi selected the oldest squad at the Asian Cup with an average age of almost 29 and only three players below 26, talk of a lasting legacy was put to one side.
Lippi pointed out to ESPN FC that he gave youngsters such as Chen Binbin and Huang Zichang chances (and Zhang Yuning of ADO Den Haag may have made it had injuries not intervened) but they were not grabbed with sufficient force.
"We have had friendly matches," Lippi said. "I gave some young players opportunities to show their quality and abilities. We saw they have a lot of work to do, they don't have big experience in these kind of international big matches.
"At the Asian Cup, I needed to have my best players, with big experience in the international field and that's why I called them up for the big tournament. I am confident that the future of Chinese football will be better and better. There is movement from the young teams -- U19, U20 and Olympic. I am confident that we will have good young players coming through."
There are whispers among the Chinese press pack in Abu Dhabi that Lippi is, understandably, keen to protect his reputation and so picked players he knows and trusts for the tournament. Working for a Chinese Football Association that is pushed and pulled in different directions due to political pressures and the demands for 2022 qualification, makes everything that much tougher. Almost impossible.
Lippi may not have been the game changer that Chinese football needed but the further his aging team goes at the Asian Cup, the better he will be remembered.