A lot can happen in football in the space of a week, but when Marcello Lippi told reporters last week that this would be his final year with Chinese side Guangzhou Evergrande there was little reason to doubt his honesty.
Per Football Italia, the Italian had told Marca that 2014 would in fact be his final year in club management. A similar message, meanwhile, had been propagating in China for some time, with hopes abundant that he would take the reins of the national side.
On Friday, though, the Cantonese side officially announced on the club website (Chinese) that "Il Mister" and his backroom staff had put pen to paper on a new three-year deal with the club.
On what is Chinese football's transfer deadline day, Evergrande had secured the biggest coup of a window in which they had also attracted Azzurri international Alessandro Diamanti to head East just months ahead of this summer's World Cup.
There is no doubt Lippi, who was previously said to be earning €10 million per year, per ESPN's John Duerden, will have been rewarded greatly for his commitment to the Evergrande cause.
Such sums, though, are negligible to a company which, per Titan Sports newspaper via Caijing finance (Chinese), boasted a cash balance of around €5 billion in their last half-year financial report. When it comes to football, Evergrande are determined to make a name for themselves.
Since buying Guangzhou Pharmaceuticals FC at the end of 2010, they have achieved a promotion followed by three straight Chinese Super League titles. At the end of 2013, they took their biggest step yet toward becoming Asian football's first "superclub" with success in the AFC Champions League.
In just 18 months, Lippi had taken his side to the top of Asian football and, over the course of the campaign, they were the best side by some distance. At the Club World Cup in Morocco, only inexperience and profligacy cost them what would have been an entirely deserved victory over Atletico Mineiro to claim third place.
Asian football and, indeed, Chinese football may not be at an ideal standard for the time being, but it is certainly improving. Evergrande, though, have their bar set much higher.
Part of Lippi's role in Guangzhou is to oversee the formation of an elite-level professional club. The club's 2,300 student academy was founded 18 months ago with the help of coaching staff from Real Madrid and facilities that would be the envy of any side worldwide.
“Our long-term strategy is to use teenagers to turn Evergrande into a team of only domestic players in eight to 10 years, making them stars in China, Asia and the world,” commented Evergrande Group owner Xu Jiayin when unveiling the academy in 2012, per a recent in-depth report by the Financial Times' Demetri Sevastopulo.
It is an ambitious target, but in modern China anything is possible—albeit that football success stories have been rare in the country. Lippi has brought in a number of Italian colleagues, including staff to oversee the development from youth team to reserve and first team, in order to give the project the best chance of success.
The club's spending has been lavish, but there has long been talk of a long-term balancing of the cash flow. For much of their time at the helm, though, such talk was at best seen as fanciful.
However, their success in the AFC Champions League captured attention across the country and has altered the financial landscape. Evergrande were China's first continental champions since Liaoning in 1991, and the country has evolved dramatically during the intervening time period, including football turning professional.
As reported here by Netease (Chinese), the club announced earlier this month a shirt sponsorship with a Nissan subsidiary company officially worth €13 million per year. Other sponsorships, including those with Nike, an alcoholic drinks provider and an electronic goods store are said to almost double that total.
Beyond that, they have also begun selling advertising within the Tianhe Stadium for considerable sums, while the Chinese Super League as a whole has also benefitted from the attention.
Ping'an Insurance Group were last week announced as the naming rights holder for the league in a four-year deal, per Hu Yuanyuan on China Daily. It is suggested that the deal is worth around €18 million per season to the league, per Chongqing Evening News via the South China Morning Post's Darren Wee, representing a substantial increase on previous years.
While standards in Chinese football remain low, the recent influx of money from the property development sector is seeing the Super League begin to take a rapid upward trajectory following a particularly difficult decade post-World Cup 2002 qualification.
The country's president, Xi Jinping, is widely known to be a football supporter and, per China Daily, has spoken of his desire to see the country succeed at a World Cup. The majority of the heavy spending in Chinese football has begun since he was tipped to ascend to power, with political motivations a contributing factor behind much of the investment.
For now, Evergrande remain at the forefront of Chinese football's growth, although the likes of Shandong Luneng, Beijing Guoan, Guangzhou R&F and Shanghai Greenland Shenhua are all keen to get in on the act and have the wealth to do so.
As both an adviser and a manager, Lippi has been an invaluable asset to the Evergrande Group. Indeed, his wealth of experience is the basis upon which owner Xu is looking to build a footballing giant.
In 2014, they will once more be favourites to sweep aside all before them in Asia and continue their development into a club of global standing. In securing Lippi for a further three years on Friday, their dreams no longer appear quite as lofty as they had just a few short days ago.
Guangzhou Evergrande may not mean much to most football fans at present, but there are few more interesting stories in world football at the present time. Regardless of the money available to any manager, Lippi is seen as the key piece in all that they hope to achieve both on and off the pitch.
Until the end of the 2017 season, at least, fans of the club can be assured that their development is in safe hands under the man who has won football's biggest prizes in Europe, Asia and on the international stage.
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