What might have been: China prays Marcello Lippi stays on after team falls just short of World Cup miracle comeback under Italian coach

After China won just one point from their first four games, Lippi delivered 11 from the next six after taking over – but the team were just edged out

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 1:44pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 06 September, 2017, 10:59pm

China football fans were left wondering what might have been after the country’s national team fell just short of a World Cup play-off place on Tuesday night, despite the turnaround in the national team’s fortunes under Marcello Lippi.

The team needed several results to go their way and did their part by fighting back from a goal down to beat Qatar 2-1 in Doha, but South Korea’s 0-0 draw in Uzbekistan ended their hopes of sneaking into third place in the group. Syria took that spot with a last-minute equaliser in Iran.

It means yet another World Cup without China’s involvement, despite president Xi Jinping’s demand that the country become a “soccer superpower”.

China have only qualified for one World Cup, in 2002, and their path was made easier because hosts Japan and South Korea qualified automatically.

Commentators and fans in China rued the fact that Lippi – a World Cup winner as Italy manager – had not been appointed sooner, after the team began their campaign with just one point from their first four games, including a home defeat against Syria that now looks even costlier than it did at the time. Had that 0-1 scoreline been reversed, China would have finished third instead.

Former Guangzhou Evergrande manager Lippi won three, drew two and lost one of his six games in charge, and writers in China’s media were praying he stays on or even extends his contract, which expires in 2019, to try to take the team to the next World Cup.

“You can see Lippi’s achievements at a glance,” said Cai Zhenhua, CFA chief, in comments reported by state mouthpiece People’s Daily. “Eleven points from the last six games was the best in the group [actually, group winners Iran took 12].

Under his coaching, the national team has made big changes, ... the team is playing to their level and the players have more self-confidence, and especially on the pitch their execution of the coach’s tactics is significantly improved.

“Lippi is very fond of China and we hope his football philosophy will continue to be dedicated to enriching China.”

Lippi received a rousing round of applause from Chinese reporters in Doha, AFP reported.

“When I arrived we had one point after four games. Now we added 11 after six,” he said.

“We were only a step away from Syria and Uzbekistan. In the home match against Qatar [0-0] we hit the woodwork three times and their goalkeeper was terrific, and in the away game against Syria [2-2], we were leading until the last minute.

“We deserved victory in those two games, and if we had won we’d have four points more and have finished in second and be in the World Cup.

“When I was first appointed nobody told me to get to the World Cup,” he added.

“They asked me to build up a very strong team.

“We were unlucky, we didn’t get the results we deserved.”

Cai said all the signs were Lippi would see out his contract. A commentary piece on Tencent said Lippi, 69, should be given an extension until 2022, though the writer admitted Lippi’s reported annual salary of 20 million might be an issue.

“At present the relationship between the FA and Lippi’s camp is smooth and happy, the two sides maintain close communication and mutual trust – we have a high degree of consensus and the goal is consistent, to make the national football team become more mature and powerful,” said Cai.

“We want to build all the underage teams up with a unity of thought ... Lippi is building the senior team from this perspective and will give us more guidance on the development and construction of youth teams and youth training.

“I believe that the future of Chinese football is bright.”

A commentary on Sina, China’s largest web portal, said the FA’s main mistake had not been appointing Lippi long before.

The writer pointed to the 0-0 draw against Hong Kong in the previous round of qualifying as the nadir of his predecessor Alain Perrin. The Frenchman was sacked a couple of months after that match in November 2015.

Gao Hongbo took over and got the team through to the final stage of qualifying, but then oversaw the disastrous start to the campaign.