Lippi urges China to unite in 'improbable' World Cup run

BEIJING (AP) Marcello Lippi has urged his China team and the nation to pull together to accomplish the ''improbable'' task of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup before he begins a thorough overhaul of the struggling football program.

The Chinese Football Association formally unveiled Lippi as head coach of China's Dragons at a news conference on Friday, almost a week after the deal was agreed.

Chinese media reports say Lippi's three-year contract is worth 20 million euros ($21.8 million) annually and makes him the highest paid national team coach in the world. Association officials have declined to discuss specifics of the compensation package for Lippi, who led Italy to World Cup victory in 2006.

China is ranked No. 84 by FIFA and is a perennial under-achiever in international football competition, despite massive spending on foreign players and coaches in the domestic league. High-profile managers including World Cup winner Luiz Felipe Scolari and former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson have also arrived to take charge at Guangzhou Evergrande and Shanghai SIPG.

''I believe the players are all skillful and have no need to feel inferior or envy toward players of other countries, because they can reach the same level,'' Lippi told reporters. ''What they need is a sense of responsibility, mission and belief.''

Still, it's unlikely China will even qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Gao Hongbo quit as head coach after the 2-0 loss to Uzbekistan earlier this month left China with just one point from four games in Asia's last round of World Cup qualifying. China has qualified for the World Cup only once, when the tournament was co-hosted by South Korea and Japan in 2002, but was bounced out of the group stages without scoring a goal.

''In the qualification stages, our chances are not great, but what we need to do is pull together - the entire squad, the CFA, logistics, medical team - and maximize our chances and accomplish this improbable mission,'' Lippi said. ''After that, we can consider our long-term issues.''

Above all, the Chinese team - frequently derided by China's soccer-loving public as a national embarrassment - needs to fix its mentality and gain self-confidence, said Lippi, who said his first priority is to psychologically evaluate his players.

''What I need to know first is why our players play very well for their club but only at 40 percent for their country,'' he said. ''I want to tell them it's the highest honor to put on the country's shirt and they need to fight and perform at the same level.''

Lippi is already familiar with Chinese football at the club level, having coached Guangzhou Evergrande from 2012 to 2015. He led Evergrande to multiple domestic titles and, most notably, the Asian Champions League trophy in 2013.

The financial details of Lippi's arrangement remains murky, with domestic media reporting his salary will be partially paid for by the real estate group Evergrande, whose owner, Xu Jiayin, is an avid supporter of Chinese football. Other Chinese commentators have questioned whether Lippi's services are worth the expense.

CFA president Cai Zhenhua declined to address Lippi's salary on Friday, citing his privacy, but said the amount was fair for a manager of his credentials.

The investment is part of a national soccer push. President Xi Jinping, a big fan of the game, has made improving Chinese football from the grassroots all the way to the international level a priority of his administration, saying it could boost children's physical education as well as national pride.

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