The kids are all right: China soccer team is growing, says Marcello Lippi as coach turns to new generation
Italian is building his team around core of youth to try and transform China into World Cup qualifiers
As China’s hopes of winning the East Asian Championship title receded to nothing in the aftermath of Gen Shoji’s winner for Japan on Tuesday night, Marcello Lippi was already looking to the future.
A second game without a victory at such a low-key event was of little real importance to the Italian in the context of the job he was given just over a year ago.
With China’s World Cup prospects floundering in the latter days of Gao Hongbo’s ineffective reign, Lippi was handed control with only one point on the board from four qualifiers last November.
Qualification for Russia was never a realistic possibility, and even if China had miraculously booked a place at the finals – Lippi somehow kept the country’s hopes alive until the last round of matches – an ageing team with little major tournament experience would surely have struggled at the finals.
Instead, the 69-year-old has been charged with delivering something more significant as he seeks to lay down the foundations for a team that cannot only erase a damning decade and a half of disappointment, but turn China into serial World Cup qualifiers.
The first fragile shoots of that process are emerging in Japan with Lippi choosing to blood a promising group of players who will feature for the country at next month’s AFC Under-23 Championships, which China will host, starting on January 9.
It is there Lippi and his staff expect China’s next generation to announce their arrival on the continental stage.
“When you talk about China, you have to think about the culture and the time China has spent with soccer,” said Lippi. “It’s very different to Europe. I’m having to grow a team almost from scratch.
“We have six or seven new players in this China team and we are going to work with them from now on. The team is growing, I think.
“When I came to be coach last year, in 2016, in World Cup qualifying they had only one point and we played six games and got six points, so these numbers show how much the team has grown.
“For the World Cup in Russia we weren’t eliminated from qualifying until the last game. We missed out because of one game.
“We couldn’t match the power of Iran, who are the strongest team in Asia, but we have built a very strong Under-22 team and they are still growing. Next year they are going to get even better.”
Lippi has brought six of those players to Japan, with Shanghai SIPG’s Wei Shihao stealing the headlines with a goal on his debut during the draw at the weekend with South Korea.
Defenders Liu Yiming, Gao Zhunyi and Deng Hanwen as well as midfielder He Chao and striker Yang Liyu all started that game, too, with Wei, Liu, Gao and He all retaining their places for Tuesday’s meeting with Japan.
Of that sextet, all but Gao have benefited from spending lengthy stints with clubs in Portugal during their formative years and Lippi is confident they can make an impact against Asia’s best, both next month and beyond.
“We are aiming for the Asian Cup in 2019 and then for Qatar in 2022,” he said. “That’s our objective and we are doing what we need to do to improve our team.
“We have eight or nine players who are not here and we have five or six new young players and they need to play in the Chinese Super League and show results so they can be called for the national team.
“The Chinese team is still growing, becoming more powerful and it’s a promising team for the future.
“If you see the games of the Under-22s, anyone playing against this team has to play hard games against China and that’s proof of how much Chinese soccer has been improving.”