When Marcello Lippi announced that he was ready to get back into soccer, few imagined the celebrated Italian coach would find a home in China.
Now Lippi, one of the world’s most successful managers, is facing one of his trickiest tests in the trigger-happy Chinese Super League with his new club, Guangzhou Evergrande.
On Sunday, the white-haired Lippi, 64, whose last assignment was leading defending champions Italy at the 2010 World Cup, started his new life with a narrow 1-0 home win over basement club Qingdao Joonon.
About 40,000 fans flocked to Guangzhou’s Tianhe Stadium to see Lippi, the most famous coach to join a Chinese team, with many wearing Juventus shirts, his former team, and one banner reading “Forza Li Pi.”
Supporters chanted Lippi’s name constantly in a hero’s welcome for the man who won the 2006 World Cup with Italy — and who is now expected to deliver the Asian club title for the vastly ambitious Guangzhou.
“I’m not interested in the score, no matter if it’s three or four nil, my task is to take this club to a higher level,” Lippi said after the game, won by a goal from Chinese international Gao Lin, according to Sina Sports.
With the reigning Chinese champions already top of the league, Lippi’s task begins in earnest on Wednesday next week when he is set to attempt to steer Guangzhou past Tokyo and into the AFC Champions League quarter-finals.
It is a daunting challenge — a one-off game, just two weeks into the job, with an unfamiliar group of players and in China, as other coaches have learned, the price of failure can be high.
Last month Jean Tigana, then the Super League’s highest profile coach, departed Shanghai Shenhua after just a handful of games, and was replaced by a makeshift coaching lineup that includes French striker Nicolas Anelka.
Guangzhou showed no emotion with Lippi’s predecessor, Lee Jang-soo, who won promotion and then the Chinese title in consecutive seasons. He was sacked with the club leading the league and qualified for the continental knock-outs.
Lee had squabbled with star player Dario Conca, who received a nine-match ban for publicly criticizing the coach — a ban that was quietly shelved as he played in last week’s Champions League game and again on Sunday.
Lippi has experience in dealing with assertive players at Juventus, with whom he won five Serie A titles and the UEFA Champions League, as well as expectant team bosses.
However, a cautionary tale comes from Australian manager Lawrie McKinna, who left China’s Chengdu Blades last year over boardroom interference and quickly found a similar situation at his next club, Chongqing Lifan.
“I got called into the boss’ room and he started to tell me a few of the older players I had not been playing had to come back in to the team,” McKinna wrote on an Australian soccer blog. “I could not agree with what he was saying and so decided to hand in my resignation as I had been through this at Chengdu last year and was not going to go through it again.”
Lippi’s last job ended badly, when reigning champions Italy were knocked out of the 2010 World Cup at the group stage and it was nearly a year before he said he was ready to coach again.
He will hope for happier times in China.