BEIJING: World Cup-winning manager Marcello Lippi was hired Saturday to take over the national football team in the latest sign of China's commitment to becoming a serious force in world soccer.
The Chinese Football Association announced Lippi's hiring after reports circulated this week suggesting a deal was close.
The 68-year-old Lippi led Italy to the 2006 World Cup title, won five Italian league titles as manager of Juventus, and won three Chinese league titles while managing Guangzhou Evergrande before announcing his retirement in 2014.
The Chinese association posted photos of a smiling Lippi signing a contract, but did not immediately confirm reports that his deal was worth 50 million euros ($54 million), which would make him one of the highest-paid coaches in the world.
It won't be easy for the Italian. Lippi, who will be formally introduced on Friday, inherits a national team that's made one World Cup in its entire history — and did not score a single goal in that tournament.
Currently, China is ranked No. 84 by FIFA and in danger of missing the 2018 World Cup. Its previous coach, Gao Hongbo, resigned after a 2-0 loss on Oct. 11 to Uzbekistan. That followed a 1-0 loss at home to war-torn Syria, after which fans were seen protesting in the streets.
But China has established a national goal of creating a football superpower capable of winning the World Cup by 2050. The drive is led by President Xi Jinping, a noted soccer fan who is said to have watched with frustration a 1983 exhibition in which the English side Watford trounced China.
Chinese Super League teams have given big contracts to international players like Alex Teixeira and Jackson Martinez, and prominent coaches like former Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari and former England boss Sven-Goran Erikkson.
A 50-point plan to promote football in the country includes setting up school programs, recruiting foreign coaches and creating 70,000 new fields and 50 million school-age players by 2020.
China has made improving its soccer performance a test of its prestige on the world stage. It's employed a top-down approach reminiscent of efforts that produced champions in several Olympic sports, though some question whether a World Cup competitor can be developed that way.