AT 69 years old, many people are settling into retirement, travelling the world, and babysitting their grandchildren. However, for Marcello Lippi, 69 is an age to continue to show the world he is as important and relevant a figure as ever within football.
The first coach to win both the World Cup and European Champions League, Lippi could easily have walked away from football with nothing left to prove after his third successive Chinese Super League title win with Guangzhou Evergrande in 2014.
Had he done so, aged 66, he would have been applauded into the sunset, his place in the elite group of world coaches assured.
Instead, late last year, he answered a call to take over the ailing Chinese national team, who at the time had one point from four World Cup qualifying matches and were adrift in their group.
To many of Europe’s decorated super-coaches, it would have sounded like a challenge too far.
But not only has Lippi rarely been out of football since his teenage years in the 1960s – the sport pulling him back in to manage Italy for a second time in 2008 and Guangzhou in 2012 – he also became very fond of China during his three years in club management there.
His initial move to China was somewhat surprising, given he spent the first 64 years of his life in Italy. After beginning his coaching career in 1982 with a role in the Sampdoria youth sector – he had earlier spent a decade with the club as a player – his big break came when he moved to Napoli in 1993.
He left a year later for a Juventus side who had not won a domestic championship for eight years: and led them to the title in his first season. It was at Juventus that he established himself as a true coaching mastermind.
He developed his tactics and established his dominance; turning a young, ambitious team into a team of grace and determination to achieve success. After winning three Italian titles, one European Champions League and one Italian Cup with Juventus, Lippi had a brief spell in Milan with Inter, before returning to Juve and adding two more league championships to his impressive CV.
He went on to lead Italy to victory in the 2006 World Cup, calling it his “most satisfying moment as a coach”.
Throughout the tournament, he was praised for his tactical systems. In his book, II Gioco delle Idee: Pensieri e Passioni Da Bordo Campo (A Game of Ideas: Thoughts and Passions from the Sidelines), Lippi emphasised the importance of team spirit and unity. Players are considered family and must play for each other and maximise each other’s potential despite any setbacks they may encounter.
Having left his role soon after the World Cup triumph, only to return in 2008 after the team’s disappointing performances under Roberto Donadoni, Lippi departed for a second time after a poor showing at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
In May 2012, he surprised many by joining Chinese Super League team Guangzhou Evergrande, years before the league was considered a viable destination for leading European and South American players. In November 2014, having won three Chinese Super League titles and an Asian Champions League, Lippi declared that he had retired from coaching.
But last year, with China struggling, he was again drawn back to football. He inherited a team given no chance of qualifying for next year’s World Cup. And although they ultimately fell short, missing out on a play-off spot by one point, he has invigorated the game in China.
“When I was first appointed, nobody told me to get to a World Cup,” he said.
“They asked me to build up a very strong team. We were unlucky; we didn’t get the results we deserved.”
After leading his team to three wins and two draws in their final six group games, the Chinese Football Association (CFA) gave Lippi their backing.
“Lippi’s efforts in improving Chinese football and the progress the team has made thus far serve as example for all to see,” read a statement.
Lippi, who was linked recently with a return to Italy at Chinese-owned AC Milan, has been assured he will remain in position until the finals of the Asian Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2019. He has been outspoken about his struggles with the team – having no proven centre forward, for example, which caused him to move players from other positions to compensate.
Under his coaching, the national team has made big improvements and acquired an immeasurable amount of self-confidence. But with President Xi Jinping craving an era of football success, Lippi is arguably facing the biggest challenge of his career when he might otherwise be winding down.
Lippi must use his past experience to beat the odds, with an ageing team and a dearth of genuine talent coming through. China last reached a FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2005, and, while there is great investment in children’s football, that will not immediately benefit Lippi – or whoever leads the country’s bid to qualify for the 2022 World Cup.
The signs of progress, though, are real. Evergrande player, Huang Bowen, attributed the team’s recent improvement and self-belief to one man.
“We have Lippi with us,” Huang said. “This is what gives us most confidence. He has stressed that we must have the desire to win and believe in ourselves and our team-mates.”
Lippi has seen it all. From wins to losses, his mantra has always been to develop a great team regardless of the skills within the individual player.
If he can deliver success with the players he has at his disposal, his greatest challenge could yet turn into his biggest achievement. Developing this group of men to not only believe in themselves but also inspire their nation is something only a master artist like Lippi could believe possible.