After a disappointing 2-1 loss against Syria in Dubai on Thursday night, the fate of China’s national football team hangs precariously in the balance.
That result, at the halfway point of the Asia qualifying group stage for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, now puts China five points behind their Western Asian opponents. Only those teams that finish at the top of each group, plus the four best runner-ups will move on into the next stage.
Immediately after the final whistle, China’s head coach Marcello Lippi announced that he was stepping down. In a post-match press conference, Lippi pointed to his players’ attitude as the reason for his departure: “If they are afraid and lacking motivation, will, and courage, and fail to execute what we had trained for, I will take responsibility for that as head coach.”
Lippi then appears to cut the conference short, stumbling as he makes his way out of the room.
It is the second time that the 71-year-old Italian has resigned from the position. In January Lippi terminated his contract because he felt “homesick,” but came back four months later, apparently convinced by the huge contract granted to him by the Chinese football association – at USD 28 million a year, it made him one of the best-paid managers in the world.
Lippi, who led Italy to win the World Cup in 2006, looks set to leave China for good this time around, putting the Chinese Football Association (CFA) under significant pressure to appoint a suitable replacement who can help guide China through the remainder of the qualification matches.
China has only participated in one World Cup, back in 2002 when they played in Japan and South Korea.
Chinese authorities are on a campaign to make football a national sport, backed by President Xi Jinping’s blessing and alleged passion for the game. Despite the fact that the Chinese Super League has drawn many renowned footballers with attractive contracts, and helped Guangzhou Evergrande win the Asian Champions League, its national team has yet to see any such progress.
The National Team’s continuing poor performance stings doubly given that China now allows foreign players to be naturalized in an effort to help boost the team’s level, a move that Qatar also made back in 2017. Brazilian-born Chinese midfielder Elkeson de Oliveira Cardoso, better known here as Ai Kesen, became the first player to compete in a Chinese jersey followed by English-born Nico Yennaris. Since then, many other naturalized players have gone on to start with China this year, only exposing the lack of quality Chinese youth players.
Among the current squad, only Wu Lei plays in a competitive league in Europe: the Spanish Liga.
China now only has four games to qualify for the next round of the 2022 World Cup. Whoever is appointed coach will be under immense pressure to prove that China has what it takes to reach their second-ever World Cup, otherwise, it stands to be a very long wait to 2026.