Opinion / Huang Xiangyang

Money and coach do not make a soccer team

By Huang Xiangyang (chinadaily.com.cn) Updated: 2016-10-26 11:11

Money and coach do not make a soccer team

Italian soccer coach Marcello Lippi (L) shakes hands with Cai Zhenhua, president of China Football Association (CFA), in Guangzhou, capital of South China's Guangdong province, Oct 22, 2016. Marcello Lippi will be the head coach of Chinese men's soccer team from Oct 22, 2016, according to the official website of the CFA. [Photo/Xinhua]

I am not a big soccer fan, and I don't care much about how the Chinese men's national soccer team performs. As far as I can recall, the players have rarely played like men, though their incomes have reached astronomical figures since the Chinese professional soccer league was established in the early 1990s.

History shows monetary incentives are not a panacea for success for the national men's soccer team. That is why I cannot understand the logic behind the Chinese Football Association's decision last week to hire Marcello Lippi as the coach of the Chinese team for a jaw-dropping €20 million ($21.76 million) a year.

The amount sets a record for the money earned by the world's best coaches for a national team. The top earner, Roy Hodgson of England, was paid €5 million a year, and Germany's World Cup winning coach Joachim Loew made €3.2 million. Lippi's predecessor, Gao Hongbo, who resigned after China lost 0-2 to Uzbekistan early this month during the World Cup qualifiers, earned a meager 800,000 yuan ($117,800).

Yes, the 68-year-old Lippi is not a common man. He steered Italy to World Cup victory in 2006, and has led Guangzhou Evergrande to three Super League titles in China between 2012 and 2014. But that track record is no guarantee that he will transform the national team into at least an Asian powerhouse to justify his high salary.

With only one point from four matches, the men's soccer team faces mission impossible to qualify for the 2018 World Cup finals in Russia. The rest of the matches may just be symbolic — face-saving occasions. And with the national team having no major games to play in the coming two years, the amount paid to the Italian is anything but reasonable.

However, this is not the first time a foreign coach has been offered a fat paycheck in the hope that he would use a magic wand to catapult Team China into the hall of soccer fame. In August 2011, the CFA paid €2.8 million to former Spanish and Real Madrid coach Jose Antonio Camacho to train and guide the Chinese team. That amount, although meager compared with Lippi's salary, was still double the total amount the CFA had paid to all foreign coaches hired for the Chinese national soccer team.

Camacho was praised to the sky for his "legendary past", and high hopes were pinned on his perceived ability to transform the team overnight — as is the case with Lippi today. Yet the Camacho-CFA honeymoon lasted less than two years, coming to a bitter end in 2013 after the Chinese team's humiliating 1-5 loss to Thailand. Camacho had nothing to lose, though. He was paid €6.45 million as compensation for having his contract terminated unilaterally ahead of schedule.

I have no doubt over Camacho and Lippi as top-class coaches. But for Chinese soccer to take off, a lot more needs to be done. To start with, we need more soccer players. It is a shame that a country of 1.3 billion people has only about 10,000 registered professional players, as official figures indicate.

We also need to set up more soccer schools, build more soccer fields and provide more free time for children to play soccer just for fun. Without grassroots development we will never have our own Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.

All this will take time, but officials in charge of the sport refuse to accept that because they want a quick-fix solution no matter what the monetary cost is.

That explains why officials and clubs are eager to squander money on famous players and coaches instead of taking measures to cultivate Chinese talents from the grassroots.

A lot of lessons can be learned from the Chinese soccer team's history, because history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.

The author is a senior writer with China Daily

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