The new era of Chinese football starts on Thursday with a fairly low-key friendly game against Thailand in Nanning. Fabio Cannavaro is the latest coach to be given the job of taking China to the next level.
The man who lifted the 2006 World Cup as the captain of Italy takes over from Marcello Lippi, the coach of that famous team, but his task is more complex than usual.
If Cannavaro, appointed earlier in March, had any doubts as to the size of the job ahead then he can look to Lippi, one of the modern game’s top coaches. The ‘Silver Fox’ has won the World Cup and the UEFA Champions League with Juventus before moving to Guangzhou Evergrande in China in 2012 and winning three Chinese Super League titles and one Asian Champions League by the time he left in 2014.
Despite all that experience and success, Lippi’s influence on the national team from October 2016 when he took the job to January this year was limited. His major target was the 2019 Asian Cup.
While Team Dragon reached the last eight of the tournament in January, about par for the course, there was little to get excited about. Star forward Wu Lei apart, China lacked spark and imagination and the fact that the squad was the oldest in the history of the tournament with an average age of 29.2 did not suggest the immediate future was bright.
Lippi, 70, always planned to return to Europe at the end of the Asian Cup, so the major question was who would succeed the cigar-smoking septuagenarian. The continental tournament marked the end of a busy cycle of international football and the next major event is the 2022 World Cup.
With China’s team full of veterans such as Zheng Zhi and Gao Lin, who are expected to step down, the focus is on bringing through the next generation, and that is Cannavaro’s job, for now.
To make lifting the under-achieving team to the next level a little trickier and more confusing, Cannavaro already has a full-time job as head coach at Guangzhou Evergrande. He is to do both, but it is uncertain how long this will last.
Indeed, the reaction in China to the 45-year-old’s national team appointment was not uniformly enthusiastic. The Italian enjoyed a stellar playing career, but as a coach, he has not yet hit the same heights.
His first head coaching job came at the end of 2014 as he succeeded Lippi at Guangzhou only to be fired after six months with the club wanting to move towards a more Brazilian style of play. In 2016 he returned to China to take second-tier Tianjin Quanjian to a promotion and then into third place in the top tier in 2017.
At the end of that season, he was rehired by Guangzhou. His first season back saw the club finish second in 2018, the first time the Southern Chinese tigers had not been national champions since 2010.
Even without the doubts about his coaching credentials, handling the twin pressures of China’s biggest club job and national team job will be far from easy.
In terms of the national team, Cannavaro’s major challenge is bridging the gap between the departing stalwarts and a wave of talent that is expected – or hoped – to come through in the next years due to the recent investment in youth football at a countrywide level.
In 2015 the government, which wants China to be a global powerhouse in the sport by 2050, announced plans to roll out football programs across the nation’s schools. By 2018, more than 20,000 schools offered specialized football education to about 10 million students with the figure expected to grow to about 50,000 and 30 million by 2025.
It is expected that the results of such focus on development will not feed through to the national team for another few years, meaning that Cannavaro will have to look to the existing Chinese Super League as he selects his squad.
He does at least have Wu Lei, though not this week. The 2018 top scorer in the Chinese Super League moved to Espanyol in Spain in January and has been performing well in one of the world’s top leagues.
It remains to be seen if the Italian has time to monitor a major development in this year’s league with the presence of the first naturalized players. Nico Yennaris was playing in England’s second tier last season and John Seater Hou was in Norway. Both have Chinese mothers and have signed for Beijing Guoan and taken Chinese citizenship.
This means they will not be counted as foreign players as clubs can only field three imports during a game, and are eligible to play for the national team. Other clubs are checking out the Chinese diaspora.
The one benefit for Cannavaro, if he keeps the national team job, is that Chinese fans are nothing if not realistic after years of underachievement. Unless the 2022 World Cup is expanded from 32 to 48 teams, which will give Asia eight automatic spots instead of the current four, then there will be little pressure to qualify for the tournament.
Cannavaro has, however, to show he can build a team for the future while managing the country’s biggest club. There can be few greater challenges in the world of football.