Lippi urges China to keep believing

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Marcello Lippi says he still hopes to see his former Chinese national squad win a ticket to the 2022 World Cup finals.

“I can’t wait to see a World Cup with Team China competing in it,” said Lippi during a recent interview with Tencent Sports. “I hope the Chinese team can achieve their goal in the near future.

Lippi also backed his successor and former Guangzhou Evergrande colleague, Li Tie, to eventually succeed where he failed – by steering China to a first World Cup finals since a solitary appearance in 2002. However, the Italian has urged Li to play more games against stronger opponents as a means of improving the team.

“The Chinese players need to gain more experience in high-level competitions. They can improve by competing with stronger rivals, instead of weak teams. It’s beneficial even when they are defeated by the strong opponents.

“That’s why I would always arrange friendlies playing against strong teams. That helps them grow, and that’s the test they must pass.”

Lippi knows all too well how big victories over weak opponents can instill a false sense of optimism.

The 72-year-old was at the helm as Team China began its 2022 World Cup Group A qualifying campaign by thrashing the Maldives (5-0) and Guam (7-0) before disappointing results against the Philippines (0-0) and Syria (2-1 loss) followed.

That defeat to Syria in Dubai last November prompted Lippi to resign, with the 2006 World Cup winner signing off memorably by saying: “What I’m earning is a lot of money. I don’t want to rob it. Now I’m announcing my resignation.”

Lippi was first hired in November 2016 but failed to take China to the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia before stepping down in January 2019 after a disappointing Asian Cup campaign concluded in a 3-0 quarterfinal exit to Iran.

The former Juventus boss was reappointed by China last May but ended his second spell in charge after only 175 days. In January this year, the Chinese Football Association opted for a young homegrown coach in Li to take the national team forward.

Forty-three-year-old former China international Li enjoyed a distinguished career as a player, counting English top-flight side Everton among his former employers. He was an assistant-coach at Guangzhou Evergrande, when Lippi was in charge, and was head coach at Wuhan Zall before departing for the national team – initially in a caretaker capacity and then on a permanent basis.

“Li Tie is well prepared for Team China. He was at Evergrande and then was a member of the coaching team in the national squad. At last he is in my position. I’m very happy for him,” said Lippi.

“There are many good young players in the team now. This is a younger team and their future is promising. He is ambitious and hopes to achieve big with the national team. I believe he will use all the advantages at his disposal to find good players and deliver his spirit to them.”

Since taking the Team China reins, Li has prioritized building a younger squad.

Veterans like 39-year-old Zheng Zhi are unlikely to pull on the red of China again, with Li introducing fresh blood, including more naturalized stars, as he prepares for World Cup qualifiers that have been rescheduled for October amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brazil-born Ai Kesen (aka Elkeson) and England-born Li Ke (aka Nico Yennaris) were added to the squad when Lippi was still in charge. However, neither have managed to become the game-changers that Chinese fans crave.

Brazil-born Luo Guofu (aka Aloisio) became the third naturalized player to earn a call-up when he was selected for a training camp in Shanghai last month.

Coach Li had also planned to include Brazil-born Alan to that group, however the Beijing Guo’an attacker was unable to attend as he was stranded in his native country at the time due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

Earlier this month, Brazil-born Evergrande star Ricardo Goulart told media that he had been granted Chinese citizenship and was “waiting for Team China’s call”, however his eligibility for the national team has yet to be confirmed.

If China’s match against the Maldives goes ahead in October, Li could potentially have five naturalized players to choose from.

“Naturalized players can enhance the strength of the national team,” Li said earlier this year. “Personally speaking, I hope to see more naturalized players join the national team.

“What’s more important, though, is that naturalized players have a strong desire to play for Team China and try their best on the pitch. The door of the national squad is open to all players, including naturalized ones.”

While importing naturalized players may have short-term benefits, critics of the policy fear it damages the development of domestic players.

In his Tencent interview, Lippi reiterated the importance of leveling up China’s soccer youth training.

“China should now focus on developing youth training and nurturing domestic coaches. China should not hire too many foreign coaches,” said Lippi.

“Many Chinese players can be good coaches after they retire, and they can support the growth of the next generation of Chinese players. After years like this, Team China can be competitive.”

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