Winning the right to stage the 2023 Asian Football Confederation Asian Cup was the easy bit for China, now the hard part: cobbling together a soccer team that does not embarrass the hosts.
Recent results for the senior and youth national teams underline how much work needs to be done if China are to put up a respectable showing in four years’ time.
Ranked 74th in the world, a rung above Cape Verde, China were beaten at home in their past two friendlies, against lower-ranked Thailand and Uzbekistan.
That brought Fabio Cannavaro’s stint as coach to an abrupt end and heralded the return of Marcello Lippi, who only left in January after defeat to Iran in the Asian Cup quarter-finals.
Speaking ahead of his first match back, a home friendly against the Philippines tomorrow, the 71-year-old said that he was not looking beyond qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
However, the former Juventus and Italy coach made no promise that he can get China to Qatar and said that the country was playing catch-up.
“China must build its own coaching staff and coaching system,” Lippi told CCTV5, saying that when he arrived in 2012 to manage Guangzhou Evergrande, most Chinese teams had no youth system.
That is improving and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a self-avowed soccer fan, has grand ambitions of China hosting and even winning a World Cup.
However, while clubs and authorities are pouring money into youth soccer — with foreign coaches to run them — marked results are likely to come only after the 2023 Asian Cup.
“This should have been done 10 or 15 years ago,” said Lippi, who took Italy to 2006 World Cup glory with Cannavaro as his inspirational captain.
Damningly, he concluded that there is “no football culture” in China.
Lippi’s squad for this year’s Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in February was one of the oldest at the tournament.
Underlining the lack of talent coming through, Lippi again called up to his latest squad veteran midfielder Zheng Zhi.
Zheng will be 42 by the time the Asian Cup is hosted in China for a second time.
Bringing in naturalized foreign-born players is a quick fix and Lippi named former England youth international Nico Yennaris for the Philippines game and a friendly with Tajikistan on Tuesday next week.
There was rejoicing when the Asian Football Confederation on Tuesday confirmed China as hosts of the 2023 tournament, after all the other interested countries dropped out, but there was also concern.
In the past week the players who could make up the bulk of the 2023 squad have been ruthlessly exposed at the international level.
At last week’s Panda Cup, also in China, the U18s lost all three games and failed to score in defeats to New Zealand, Thailand and South Korea.
The 2-0 loss to Thailand was calamitous, China’s goalkeeper directing an innocuous cross into his own net.
The subsequent uproar over a South Korea player celebrating with his feet on the trophy neatly distracted from the home side’s deficiencies.
Then at the Toulon youth tournament in France, China’s Olympic team — run by respected Dutchman Guus Hiddink — were thrashed 4-1 by the Republic of Ireland on Monday.
One theory is that contrasting soccer philosophies — Italian, Dutch and Belgian Chris van Puyvelde as technical director — is leading to jumbled thinking.
Ma Dexing, deputy editor-in-chief of newspaper Titan Sports, said that there was inconsistency in selection at the youth level, meaning the best prospects rarely have the opportunity to gel.
“This is an important reason why our youth teams are losing constantly, and even one generation is worse than the last one,” he wrote in yesterday’s Oriental Sports Daily.
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