When Marcello Lippi was unveiled as Guangzhou Evergrande’s coach last May, he made a rather memorable prediction. “My arrival may be the most important thing for China today,” he told local media, confidently.
Impressive talk, but Lippi looks to be delivering. His team are on the cusp of winning the Chinese Super League and on Wednesday evening the club secured a place in history as the first Chinese team to get to the final of the AFC Champions League.
All the sweeter, Evergrande defeated Japan’s Kashiwa Reysol in the semi-finals, winning 4-1 away and then 4-0 at home this week. That 8-1 aggregate scoreline had Xinhua using the word “pummel” to describe the extent of the victory, while a delighted Beijing News crowed that Lippi’s men had “thrashed the Japanese”. CCTV went for warlike imagery too, describing it as a “bloodbath”.
Given the beleaguered nature of Chinese football over the past few years, it isn’t surprising that the victory has inspired a fair bit of national pride. As a jubilant Global Times declared: “We won! Guangzhou Evergrande has made history”.
Comments on Sina Weibo reflected similar elation, a typical remark being “Guangzhou Evergrande, how can I not love you? Looking forward to the day you seize the Asian championship.”
Lippi was pleased too. “I think a team playing this way completely deserves to reach the final,” said the man who once coached the Italian national side. “Now we want to go on and win the title.”
The final will be played over two legs, with the first match scheduled for late this month, and the second for early November. The Chinese team will meet FC Seoul, which beat Iran’s Esteghal 4-2 on aggregate.
The AFC Champions League was created in 2002 to replicate the successful format of the UEFA Champions League in Europe. The Asian version includes top teams from across Asia and the Middle East. However, Chinese clubs have performed poorly in the tournament.
The sellout semi-final at Guangzhou’s Tianhe stadium shows how far Evergrande has progressed since property tycoon Xu Jiayin purchased the team in 2011. Xu came with a mission to rejuvenate a club that had only recently been demoted to a lower league for match-fixing. He renamed the club after his property firm Guangzhou Evergrande and pumped hundreds of millions of yuan into the team. Aside from spending $10 million to bring Argentinian striker Dario Conca to Guangzhou, Xu made plain his intent to win the Asian championship by luring Lippi from Italy on a package worth €10 million ($13.62 million) a year.
As WiC has discussed before, Xu’s formula for cleaning up the scandal-plagued club was a simple one. By paying big salaries – as well as performance-related bonuses – he has ensured that his players aren’t tempted to take bribes from gambling syndicates looking to rig matches (which for most of the past decade has been a particular problem for Chinese football).
For instance, Evergrande’s players went into the semi-final knowing that they’d already accumulated a bonus pool of Rmb104 million ($16.98 million) – that’s eleven times the actual prize money the winning team will get for lifting the AFC Champions League trophy, according to the Jinan Daily.
But amid all the euphoria about Xu’s team and its historic victory, not everyone was toasting it as a turning point for Chinese football. The national team continues to be woeful (see WiC198) and much of Evergrande’s success can be credited to its expensive international imports.
As one blogger remarked on weibo: “Did you notice that all eight goals scored by Guangzhou were by foreign players?”
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