The World of ChineseWednesday, February 26, 2014 |By: Armand Holmes
Chinese football fans haven’t had much to cheer about over the past decade. In fact, they haven’t had much to cheer about ever. However, the tide appears to be turning (for now at least), as late last November, Guangzhou Evergrande captain Zheng Zi and head coach Marcello Lippi lifted the AFC Champions League trophy at the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou. Guangzhou Evergrande’s victory in the continental club championship is the first time since 1990 (when Lianoning FC won the tournament), that a Chinese clubhas been crowned champions. The win by Guangzhou Evergrande shows that Chinese club soccer might just yet be a force to be reckoned with.
The mood for football fans in China hasn’t been this upbeat since Dalian Wanda’s run in the old Asian Club Championships in 1998. Though the Chinese national teams appearance in the 2002 World Cup Finals did provide some much needed respite from the seemingly never-ending Chinese football pain.
The Asian Football Confederation has quietly been moving into more positive territory after some high-profile bribery scandals. The Chinese teams head into the 2014 season more hyped than they have been in close to a generation.
The AFC Championships League has recently been having success on and off the field. After the recent championship run of Guangzhou, the AFC signed sponsors such as Tsingtao Brewery and heavy machinery manufacturer SDLG. The AFC Champions League was watched by a record number of television viewers due to the competitiveness and success of Chinese teams.
More than 30 million football fans in China watched the second leg of the AFC Champions League, where Guangzhou drew a 1-1 tie with FC Seoul, but went on to take home the title on the away goals rule. The match was the largest television audience for a sporting event in China in 2013, bigger even than Li Na making her way to the final of the Australian Open.
Due to this success and popularity, money is flowing into clubs across the country. The money is, in part, a sign of the country’s growing economy, but also the product of wealthy businessmen and their desire to own football clubs the world over, and it is putting Chinese football clubs firmly on the map.
On Tuesday, the AFC Champions League began its new season. The soccer field is now a key battleground for owners, players and Chinese clubs to put themselves on display. The Chinese national team has long-suffered due to a lack of coaching and the need for long-term investment to develop younger players.
The new-breed of wealthy club owners, now have the ability to recruit and attract highly talented foreign players and coaches. The status of Chinese football clubs in the AFC has risen accordingly. Guangzhou Evergrande’s victory means they go into the 2014 season as champions of Asia, the pinnacle of a four season long quest,where they claimed three consecutive Chinese Super League titles.
Guangzhou were close to winning a unique treble last year, but they were upended by Guizhou Renhe who beat them 3-2 on aggregate in the 2013 Chinese FA Cup Final. The win by Guizhou ensured Gong Lei’s side booked a place in the group stages of the AFC Champions League for the second season in a row.
Guangzhou will not have an easy path to the AFC Champions League championship, they are likely to face a challenge from Chinese Super League runner up Shandong Luneng. The club, who finished a mighty eighteen points adrift last season, hope to win the championship this season and have invested accordingly. The Shandong football club will have a different look this year. The team hired Brazilian Coach Cuca, who guided Atletico Mineiro to the Copa Libertadores title last season. They also added Walter Montillo, a full Argentina international, alongside Brazilian striker, Vagner Love who joined the club in the middle of last season after a successful stint with CSKA Moscow. The Shandong club are now very close to matching Guangzhou in terms of talent, also having Chinese internationals Wang Dalei, Yang Xu and Han Peng at their disposal
Guangzhou begin their march to defend their crown as AFC champions on Wednesday when they host Australia’s Melbourne Victory. Guangzhou Evergrande has also made a few changes to its roster since it’s championship win. Argentine midfielder Dario Conca returned to Brazilian clubFluminense just two and a half years after signing for a record fee. He is set to be replaced by Italian Alessandro Diamanti, who signed from Bologna. The Diamanti signing shows that Guangzhou are determined to keep their title at all costs, and he will placed in a lineup that features Muriqui, who was the MVP of the AFC Champions League, and Brazilian forward Elkeson, as well as Chinese stars Zheng Zhi, Zhang Linpeng, and Gao Lin. Coach Marcello Lippisaid: “The goal for the 2014 season is simple, defend our Chinese Super League title.”