China in race to avoid home embarrassment at 2023 Asian Cup

China coach Marcello Lippi’s squad at this year’s Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates was one of the oldest at the tournament. — Reuters pic
China coach Marcello Lippi’s squad at this year’s Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates was one of the oldest at the tournament. — Reuters pic

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SHANGHAI, June 5 — Winning the right to stage the 2023 Asian Cup was the easy bit for China, now the hard part: cobbling together a football 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 last 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 on Friday, the 71-year-old said he was not looking beyond qualification for the 2022 World Cup.

But 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 the government of football-fan President Xi Jinping has grand ambitions of China hosting and even winning a World Cup.

But while clubs and authorities are pouring money into youth football — 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 was “no football culture” in China.

Ruthlessly exposed

Lippi’s squad at this year’s Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates was one of the oldest at the tournament.

Underlining the lack of talent coming through, Lippi again called up to his latest squad the veteran midfielder Zheng Zhi.

Zheng will be 42 by the time the Asian Cup comes to China for a second time.

Bringing in naturalised foreign-born players is a quick fix and Lippi named former England youth international Nico Yennaris for the Philippines game and Tuesday’s friendly with Tajikistan.

There was rejoicing when the Asian Football Confederation yesterday confirmed China as hosts of the 2023 tournament, after all the other interested countries dropped out.

But there was concern too.

In the past week the players who could make up the bulk of the 2023 squad have been ruthlessly exposed at international level.

At last week’s Panda Cup, also in China, the under-18s 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 Korean 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 the respected Dutchman Guus Hiddink — were thrashed 4-1 by the Republic of Ireland on Monday.

One theory is that contrasting footballing philosophies — Italian, Dutch and the Belgian Chris Van Puyvelde as technical director — is leading to jumbled thinking.

Ma Dexing, deputy editor-in-chief of Titan Sports newspaper, said that there was inconsistency in selection at 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 today’s Oriental Sports Daily. — AFP

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