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BEIJING (AFP) – China is set to spend millions to replace sacked national football coach Jose Antonio Camacho, but pundits say the team will remain underachievers while business titans run the top clubs and parents refuse to let the sport distract their only children from studying.
The former Spain and Real Madrid coach was dismissed last week following a 5-1 defeat at home to a second-string Thailand side, a humiliating result that sparked unruly scenes from spectators and ridicule online from long-suffering Chinese fans.
Camacho was reported to have signed an $8 million-a-year contract, putting him among the world's top 10 best-paid managers, when he arrived in 2011.
It was hoped he would transform the fortunes of the Chinese game, which has failed to improve even as the country emerges as a superpower in many other sports.
Near neighbours Japan and South Korea have far smaller populations than China but have excelled at football in recent years, with the South Koreans reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2002, when China lost all three of their group matches in their only appearance at the finals.
Camacho won only seven of his 20 games, losing 11, leaving an 11th consecutive appearance for China at the 2015 Asian Cup in Australia in the balance.
Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi is the favourite to succeed the Spaniard in the long term, but his current employers -- Chinese Super League (CSL) side Guangzhou Evergrande -- are expected to demand millions in compensation to release him from the reported $37 million two-and-a-half year contract he signed last year.
Other contenders for the job include two Serbians, former national coach Radomir Antic, who has also led both Real Madrid and Barcelona and is the current boss of CSL side Shandong Luneng, and Dragan Okuka, who coaches Jiangsu Sainty.
The Chinese Football Association (CFA) is currently locked in compensation talks with Camacho's lawyers which could result in them paying him more than $9 million, reports say.
But despite the huge outlay needed to entice Lippi as national coach, the government-funded CFA is expected to get their man.
"The man that the CFA really wants is Marcello Lippi," said Rowan Simons, an author and prominent commentator on Chinese football.
But he told AFP: "The idea that a good coach can make bad players into a good team at the world level is fanciful at best, although it is the principle that the CFA has followed faithfully for over 50 years."
Tom Byer, the head technical advisor of the CFA-administered schools football programme, agreed China had too few world-class players and said there were deep-rooted causes behind the issue.
Only about 200,000 schoolchildren play organised football at least three times per week, he said, and the priority in China's intensive education system is for youngsters to achieve academic success at the expense of sports, particularly as most families are prohibited from having more than one child.
"With the one-child policy parents look at sport as a distraction to education, which is so important for families," the American told AFP.
The CFA's most recent attempt to raise interest in the game saw football superstar David Beckham drafted in as ambassador for the CSL.
The recently-retired former England captain -- who won the French championship with Paris Saint-Germain in May -- is visiting China three times this year and officials hope he can help repair the shattered image of the Chinese game, which has been hit by a series of match-fixing scandals.
But many believe it will take more than the occasional sprinkling of Beckham stardust to help the sport recover from its murky past and improve standards.
Wu Celi, one of China's top football journalists, said systemic problems with the ownership of the country's top sides and their relationships with local officials created a "bad football environment".
Many top CSL teams are controlled by China's most powerful business titans, who buy established sides and then relocate them to the city where their company is based before changing the club name.
"The investors buy clubs in the hope of winning favour from local officials, which in turn will make their enterprises more prosperous," he told AFP.
"Football clubs are no longer football clubs, but rather a vehicle to raise the profile of entrepreneurs."
Camacho himself recognised that there was only so much a national team manager could do.
"This is an all-round project from the grass roots to the top national side," he told AFP shortly before his departure. "But I know that football fans will focus more on the result."