When Marcello Lippi arrived at Guangzhou Evergrande, it was easy to paint him as another footballing mercenary, there for the money and an easy life.
Such perceptions have been blown away in the 18 months that have followed.
That’s mainly because the Italian has created one of the finest sides in the history of Chinese football, winners of two league titles, the domestic cup, and the country’s first representatives in the Asian Champions League final.
But also because he clearly cares.
Despite his previous successes – the World Cup triumph, five Serie A titles and a Champions League trophy – the 65-year-old is engrossed in life at his new club.
I'm proud of the way the team has grown. We've got foreigners, yes, but above all our squad is made up of talented Chinese players.
“I’m very proud of what this team has achieved,” Lippi told Al Jazeera.
“In a year and a half we have won two championships and the Chinese Cup and now we are in the final of the Champions League.
“I’m proud of the way the team has grown. We’ve got foreigners, yes, but above all our squad is made up of talented Chinese players.”
Victory in the two-legged Champions League final would create history for Lippi as well as for Chinese football.
The urbane Italian is already only the second manager – Spaniard Vicente del Bosque being the other – to win both won the World Cup and Champions League.
If he can add the Asian version as well, he might complete a hat-trick that is never repeated.
Evergrande go into the first leg of the final against FC Seoul as clear favourites, despite Lippi’s protestations that “in a final it’s always a case of 50/50”.
Yes, their opponents were impressive in the semi-finals, seeing off Esteghlal of Iran 4-2 on aggregate.
And, yes, South Korea has provided four of the last five winners of the competition.
Yet anyone who saw either leg of Evergrande’s 8-1 demolition of Japan’s Kashiwa Royals in the other semi will have them down as overwhelming favourites.
To put that result into context, it’s worth noting that the Royals had previously been unbeaten in the competition.
Brazilian striker Muriqui scored two goals in each leg of the semi, taking his tally in this season’s tournament to 13 – a record.
The side are composed mainly of top Chinese players, such as defender Sun Xiang – the only Chinese player to have competed in the Uefa Champions League, during a spell at PSV Eindhoven – and former Charlton and Celtic midfielder Zheng Zhi, the captain of Evergrande and the Chinese national team.
This base of domestic talent is sprinkled with some expensive foreign stardust, with the Brazilians Muriqui and Elkeson providing the firepower in attack, and Argentine playmaker Dario Conca pulling the strings in midfield.
Lippi says the Chinese players have improved during his time at the club.
“I was surprised they were as good as they were, but obviously there were big differences with the European game,” he says.
“But the guys have developed in lots of areas, such as their aggression and work off the ball.
“The Chinese players are strong technically and physically, they just don’t have that experience, that footballing culture, to draw on.
“But they are good players.”
The Italian won five Serie A titles and the 1996 Champions League with Juventus, as well as the 2006 World Cup with Italy.
Yet even he has been taken aback by the level of interest in the Asian Champions League final ahead of the first leg in Seoul on Saturday.
“There is a huge sense of excitement and expectation, as this is the first time a Chinese side has made it through,” he says.
|Lippi has overseen a turnaround in fortune at Guangzhou [AFP]|
“That excitement is not only from the fans of Guanzhou, but across the whole country.”
The second leg is in Guangzhou on November 9, and Lippi will be hoping they can take a commanding lead into that home game, as they did when they beat the Royals 4-1 in the first leg of the semis.
The final will be the culmination of a huge transformation for Evergrande.
In February 2010, the club was relegated from the Chinese Super League after becoming embroiled in a match-fixing scandal some years earlier.
Shortly afterwards, they were taken over by the Evergrande Real Estate Group, a giant construction company, and the only way has been up ever since.
The owners invested heavily in new players such as Conca and Muriqui, and won the Chinese Super League under former manager Lee Jang-Soo.
But it was Lippi who took them to new levels of confidence, organisation and verve.
This season they won the league by a whopping 17 points and are also in the semis of the Chinese Cup, which they won last season.
Lippi has not been able to really sample and enjoy life in China’s third biggest city, though.
“I don’t really have time for tourism as I’m so busy with the football,” he said.
“But sometimes we (he and his Italian coaching staff) go out to one of the Italian restaurants here.”
The suave Italian is clearly still consumed by football, and in continuing to write his achievements in the history of the sport. Those early doubters couldn’t have been more wrong about him.