Cannavaro making a mistake in Guangzhou return

John Duerden John Duerden

Watching Fabio Cannavaro play football was not always easy for an Asian football writer.

The cool centre-back rarely came east but I was there at his peak in 2006 at the World Cup when he lifted the trophy. The final stands out for other incidents but what was striking about the defender was his economy of movement.

Energy wasn’t wasted. It was all in the head. Watching, waiting and anticipating – he knew where to be and where to go, even when the action was at the opposite end of the field. It usually worked while his brain did the thinking and his feet did what running was necessary, his hands ended up lifting the World Cup after victory over France.

Such exemplary decision-making does not seem to have made it into his coaching career however. Cannavaro is making a mistake in returning to Guangzhou Evergrande as head coach, as announced on Thursday.

He has returned. There is a cliche in football that says you should never go back. This usually applies to places where you have had success and are looking for a second dose. It rarely works. Second chances for those who have failed – or who have been deemed to have failed – are much less common.

Cannavaro was appointed to succeed Marcello Lippi as head coach at the end of the 2014 season. Almost exactly three years ago.

Lippi, the head coach of Italy’s 2006 team, had departed after leading the team to three Chinese Super League titles and one Asian Champions League triumph. Cannavaro had little coaching experience but was given the job.

After seven months, he was fired. At the time of his departure, Guangzhou were top of the league – just – and still in the Asian Champions League, one that the team would go on to win later in the year.

There were issues. There had been some criticism of the team’s defending, which had seemed less solid than in the past. There were also barbs directed at the coach for playing star striker Elkeson in an Asian Champions League group game when Guangzhou had already booked a place in the knockout stage. The Brazilian hotshot picked up an injury.

Overall though, he seemed to be doing OK before being given the boot. There were comments from the club about a desire to pursue a more Brazilian style of play. In came Luiz Felipe Scolari, a Brazilian, yes, but not one known for consistently producing sexy samba football. Yet he had won the 2002 World Cup and was certainly a big name. Now Scolari has left, after almost exactly the same amount of time in the job as Lippi and by also winning three league and one continental title. His successor is his predecessor.

Cannavaro had resigned as head coach of Tianjin Quanjian just days previously as the 2017 Chinese Super League ended. It is understandable to that the coach may feel he has unfinished business at Guangzhou. Nobody likes being fired, especially when you are top of the league.

But going back is not the right step. The job is bigger, Guangzhou are the biggest team in China and Asia. This is a real powerhouse, watched by 45,000 fans on a regular basis in the city formerly known as Canton. These fans expect success as do those in charge. Funds will be available and there is already a strong squad in place – just as there was back in 2014.

But if he does win the title in 2018. It will be the eighth successive league crown for Guangzhou. It will not be widely celebrated as it is expected and has become almost routine. This is a club that has been built by others and is already a powerhouse.

In Tianjin, it is all new. He was building something. He was building a team that won promotion in 2016 to the top tier and then finished third in 2017. This is impressive. He was building a team ready to challenge for the title next season and embark on its first ever Asian Champions League adventure.

He was also building his own coaching reputation. He had taken a team in tier two to the top of Chinese football. If he had taken Tianjin to the 2018 title, it would have been hailed as one of the finest coaching achievements in Chinese and Asian football history. It would have been his own success.

Now he is taking over the team that has won the last seven league titles. At best, he will just be another Guangzhou coach who won the league. At Tianjin, he could have become a legend. He should have had more ambition. For the most sure-footed of defenders, this is a rare mis-step.