Shanghai (AFP) – Wounded Chinese football was searching for a new national coach on Friday after an angry Marcello Lippi ended his reign with a humiliating exit at the Asian Cup.

The 70-year-old Italian World Cup winner confirmed after Thursday’s 3-0 quarter-final defeat to Iran in Abu Dhabi that he would not extend his contract.

Lippi made no effort to hide his displeasure at the nature of the defeat, which came from some calamitous Chinese defending.

“You cannot afford to gift a team like Iran three goals,” an exasperated Lippi, fondly known in China as “Silver Fox” on account of his hair, said.

Lippi, appointed coach of China in October 2016, won 12 of his 31 games in charge, losing 11 and drawing eight.

He was reportedly among the best-paid coaches in world football, but the meek defeat of his ageing side underlined the limited quality of the squad at his disposal.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, a known football fan, has vowed to make the country of 1.4 billion people a competitive force in international football.

The government is throwing resources at the grassroots game, but the gulf between Iran and China was more glaring evidence that patience is needed.

The Chinese Football Association (CFA) appears committed to hiring foreign expertise to fix the shortfall in the medium term.  

In September, veteran Dutch coach Guus Hiddink was hired to take the Chinese team into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and all the signs are that the CFA will hire another big name to succeed Lippi.

Jorge Sampaoli, who was in charge of his native Argentina when they crashed out in the last 16 of last summer’s World Cup, was linked with the job late last year.

He has since taken over at Santos in Brazil.

– ‘Feel sorry for Lippi’ –

Chinese football fans have long had rock-bottom expectations of their side, who are ranked 76th in the FIFA rankings and reached the World Cup only once, in 2002.

Chinese Super League (CSL) teams have splashed out on expensive foreign recruits, such as the 60-million-euro Brazilian Oscar at Shanghai SIPG, but the pool of international-class domestic players remains wafer thin.

The national team is regularly lambasted back home as an embarrassment, but there was sympathy for the departing Lippi, who won the CSL three times with Guangzhou Evergrande.

In an online poll immediately after he stood down, about 75 percent of supporters were satisfied with his tenure, even though he failed to steer them to last year’s World Cup. 

On Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, the hashtag #feelsorryforLippi was trending, reflecting the fondness many still hold for the former Italy and Juventus boss.

An editorial for Soccer News called the Iran loss “a fiasco” and warned fans to expect more pain over the next decade.

“China were defeated by the strongest team in Asia,” the newspaper said, adding it confirmed China were “a second-class team” on the continent.

“But to lose in such a way, the team is dishonourable and helpless.

“Who will take over? No matter their coaching ability or familiarity with Chinese football, perhaps no successor can be compared to Lippi.”