On the shoulders of Marcello Lippi now rest the hopes of a billion-strong Chinese and their soccer-mad chief, President Xi Jinping, whose ambitions for soccer glory have fuelled a prodigal scramble to buy success. Recently appointed as China`s national team manager, Lippi is one of the most successful managers in history having led Italy to victory at the world cup in 2006. This is off the back of China struggling to qualify from the group stages having lost to the footballing giants of Uzbekistan and Syria.
China is investing heavily both in the development of it`s domestic game and in international clubs. Italy's AC Milan and England’s Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and West Bromwich Albion are all now in Chinese hands. Chinese firms have bought stakes in Manchester City and Birmingham City, and have expressed interest in Liverpool. Some $2.7-billion has been spent by Chinese acquirers on foreign clubs in the past two years alone.
So what is so appealing about Midlands clubs? Well, clearly it’s not success on the field. Only West Brom is in the English Premier League and it was the 1960s when they last won any trophies. It`s about the football culture.
Whilst coaches can be hired from abroad, national team players cannot. Money dose not buy results. Football isn’t built from the top down. You start with children barely able to walk and teach them the culture of football. For many Chinese parents of single children, the path to success lies not on the field but in the classroom. Educators view sport as a distraction and it is this culture that the sport will have to confront.
China is turning attention to its youth. It has drafted a 50-point “Chinese football reform and development program” which wants kids playing soccer in 50,000 schools by 2025. It is preparing thousands of local trainers and hiring hundreds of foreign coaches.
The Chinese team currently sit bottom of its group but there are enough games to turn it around and still qualify. This is of huge importance given the stated aim of Chinese Premier Mr Xi, to be a global football superpower by 2050.