Chinese fans and state-run media heaped praise on coach Marcello Lippi on Friday after a stunning win over South Korea kept their World Cup qualifying campaign alive.
“Thanks Lippi,” gushed state broadcaster CCTV, after China climbed off the bottom of Group A following Thursday’s 1-0 victory in Changsha.
Lippi, who led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, and his coaching team took over in October for a reported fee of 20 million euros a year.
It could be money well spent after China registered their first win in the group — and only their second over South Korea in 32 meetings.
Yu Dabao’s header on 34 minutes ended 407 goalless minutes in qualifying for China, stretching back to their 3-2 away defeat to the Koreans in September.
With four games to go, China now have a fighting chance of snatching third place and a spot in the play-offs as they seek only their second appearance at a World Cup.
“China’s football team do not have Korea-phobia any more,” said the Beijing News, while the official Xinhua news agency said: “Lippi is the best choice for Chinese football.”
“Facts have proved that Lippi, through his World Cup experience, has shown himself to be a top coach, and should be China’s choice,” a Xinhua commentary said.
Football has taken on political dimensions in China after soccer-loving President Xi Jinping decreed moves to turn the country into a powerhouse.
But while clubs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on top foreign talent, China’s national team has been seen as a laggard, lurking at 86th in the world rankings.
Lippi is popular in China after he coached Guangzhou Evergrande to the AFC Champions League title in 2013, making them the tournament’s first Chinese winners.
“Thanks Lippi. His formations and strategic adjustments transformed the China side, and he gave the Chinese team confidence. He made Team China brave,” a commentator said on CCTV.
A headline in the People’s Daily, the official Communist Party mouthpiece, read: “China’s men’s team, they displayed our spirit.”
Thursday’s game was played in front of a heavy security presence after angry protests in China against South Korea’s deployment of a US missile defence system.
Next up for Lippi’s men is a tough away trip to table-topping Iran, who can all but seal their World Cup spot with victory in Tehran.
But Iran, coached by Carlos Queiroz, will come up against a far more organised and determined team than they may have been expecting.
As one contributor on social media posted: “Chinese people spent billions buying foreign forwards, and it finally showed up in a stronger defensive line.”
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