SHANGHAI: They were handed the two most high-profile jobs in Chinese football but Marcello Lippi last week angrily quit as national coach and protege Fabio Cannavaro is hanging on by his fingertips at Guangzhou Evergrande.
The downfall of the Italians, coach and captain respectively when Italy won the 2006 World Cup, has been swift and comes with a whiff of humiliation.
The 71-year-old Lippi’s final act was to bang his fists on a table and storm out of a press conference in Dubai after a damaging 2-1 defeat in 2022 World Cup qualifying to Syria last Thursday.
He earned more than US$57 million over two spells in charge, Economic Weekly said, publishing a file photo of him bare-chested and smoking a cigar in a kayak.
Cannavaro just about remains in charge of Chinese Super League (CSL) leaders Evergrande, despite being temporarily ordered aside last month and publicly rebuked.
Evergrande host Shanghai SIPG on Saturday in a top-of-the-table clash which will go a significant way towards deciding the fate of the title — and perhaps Cannavaro’s future.
There is some sympathy in China for Lippi with an acceptance that the highly regarded Italian had a squad of limited ability.
But there has also been criticism, with some pundits saying he failed to take responsibility when results did not go China’s way.
“Whether on the training ground or in private, Lippi was more irritable than the first time he coached the national side,” said the Guangzhou Daily on Monday.
Slap in the face
The former Juventus and Evergrande coach stepped aside the first time in January after taking China to the quarter-finals of the Asian Cup.
Cannavaro replaced him — an appointment that was not universally popular — while remaining at the helm at Evergrande, but he lasted only two defeats before admitting that juggling club and country was too much.
Lippi was warmly welcomed back in May, but the mood soured when the Chinese Football Association said that he would not lead the team at an East Asian championship in December.
Media accused him of delivering “a slap in the face” to Chinese football after it emerged that Lippi would stay at home in Italy.
There were growing grumblings about whether Lippi was doing enough to justify one of the highest coaching salaries in football. The criticism played a part in him quitting.
He reportedly drove the naturalisation of Brazil-born Elkeson — the first player without Chinese ancestry to represent China — but the forward was anonymous against Syria.
In his terse resignation speech, the Italian questioned the heart of his players, said a Xinhua news agency reporter at the press conference.
“My pay is very high and I take all the blame,” concluded Lippi.
That did not stop the Oriental Sports Daily accusing Lippi of arrogance and asking: “What right does he have to point fingers and carp about Chinese football?”
The 46-year-old Cannavaro, Lippi’s captain when Italy won the World Cup and his heir apparent, could follow his mentor out of the door in the coming weeks.
If there is some lingering fondness for Lippi, Cannavaro has never convinced many Chinese football fans because he has not won a major trophy as a coach.
He got Tianjin Quanjian promoted to the CSL in 2017 and then took over from Luiz Felipe Scolari at Evergrande, but failed last season to win them an eighth CSL title in a row.
There are just three rounds of matches left in the current CSL season and Evergrande are top by a point from reigning champions Shanghai SIPG.
But even if Evergrande beat SIPG this weekend and Cannavaro ultimately delivers the title — a minimum requirement — his time may be up.
Following a run of one win in nine matches, club bosses last month put captain Zheng Zhi in temporary charge and ordered Cannavaro to attend “corporate culture training”.
A chastened Cannavaro surprisingly returned at the start of this month but was accused by the club of “weak ability to rectify mistakes and insufficiently strict handling of players”.