Marcello Lippi was back as coach of China on Friday, four months after the World Cup winner quit and following a failed stint by fellow Italian Fabio Cannavaro.
The 71-year-old’s return was broadly welcomed by fans and local media, who are desperate to see China reach the World Cup for only a second time.
Lippi, who opted not to renew his contract after China were dumped out of the Asian Cup quarter-finals 3-0 by Iran in late January, is tasked with guiding the team to Qatar 2022.
China’s only previous World Cup appearance came in 2002, when they exited without a point or scoring a goal.
“Since Lippi coached the national team, they have shown a positive and tenacious fighting spirit,” the Chinese Football Association (CFA) said.
“We believe that in the days to come, under the leadership of Lippi and his coaching team, the national men’s side will make a full impact on their World Cup dreams.”
China sit a lowly 74th in the FIFA rankings, a rung above Cape Verde — whose population is 550,000, compared with China’s 1.4 billion.
But under football-fan President Xi Jinping, China have ambitions to host and even win a World Cup.
The reappointment of Lippi, who took Italy to World Cup glory in 2006, follows four months of confusion and speculation.
The former Juventus, Inter Milan and Napoli boss was succeeded by his World Cup-winning captain Cannavaro in March.
The 45-year-old former legendary defender combined the job with being coach of Chinese Super League (CSL) title-contenders Guangzhou Evergrande.
However, China lost to lower-ranked Thailand and Uzbekistan in Cannavaro’s opening two matches and he quit, saying that he could not do two jobs at once.
Re-enter his mentor Lippi, who was a three-time CSL champion with Guangzhou and among the best-paid coaches in football during his first spell in charge of the national side.
Lippi — fondly known in China as “Silver Fox” on account of his hair — was reportedly on between $23 million and $27 million a year, evidence of the country’s determination to get success at any cost.
He will earn similarly well in his second spell, with Evergrande subsiding his wages, Chinese media said.
– ‘Silent humiliation’ –
Surely in his last job in football, Lippi marginally improved China last time, winning 13 of his 32 games and losing 11.
He failed to take China to Russia 2018 following his appointment in October 2016, although qualification was already in doubt following a poor run under Gao Hongbo.
Lippi’s first match back at the helm will be a home game against the Philippines on June 7, followed by another home friendly, with Tajikistan, four days later.
The long road to World Cup qualification starts in September.
Lippi’s return comes two days after FIFA scrapped controversial plans to expand the Qatar World Cup from 32 to 48 teams.
Lou Yichen, writing in the Oriental Sports Daily, said that the CFA had been “embarrassed” having assumed that Qatar 2022 would have more teams — which would have made Lippi’s job easier.
“The CFA broke up with ‘Silver Fox’ (in January) and everyone firmly believed Lippi would not look back,” said the respected commentator Lou.
“Now the CFA swallows silent disgrace and humiliation to resume the relationship with Lippi.”