Sport, Talking Point

Veni, vidi, vici

How a Sino-Italian joint venture conquered Asian football


He came, he saw, he conquered: Guangzhou Evergrande’s Italian coach Marcello Lippi is flying high

“The ball is round, the pitch rectangular” advises the first rule for cuju, the six-a-side footballing format acknowledged by FIFA, soccer’s governing body, as China’s ancient forerunner of the modern game.

The same principle continues to apply, even if the Chinese have little to show for playing the game at least a thousand years earlier than their modern rivals.

Chinese football has more often been derided as a laughing stock than praised for its legacy in recent times (a point first made in WiC8). That made for an unusual bright spot last Saturday when Guangzhou Evergrande beat FC Seoul to win the AFC Champions League – Asia’s equivalent of the tournament in Europe that has been won by teams like Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid.

The victory made history as China’s first in the AFC Champions League since its establishment in 2002 (Liaoning’s win in the less prestigious – and now defunct – Asian Club Championship in 1990 was the last time a Chinese team had claimed regional glory).

WiC had the good fortune to get tickets to last weekend’s sell-out match. What, if anything, did the win say about Chinese football in general?

Ecstasy for Evergrande…

Arriving mid-afternoon in the Tianhe district of Guangzhou it was hard not to catch football fever as thousands of fans started to congregate for the game. Hotels were booked solid, vuvuzela salesmen were deafening the neighbourhood and match tickets were changing hands for multiples of their face value (the concierge at WiC’s hotel begged to sell ours for Rmb10,000 or $1,600 each).

A crowd of 56,000 was shoehorned into Evergrande’s stadium, generating a dangerously triumphalist atmosphere (and one interrupted only briefly by the silence that greeted FC Seoul’s equalising goal). It stunned the scoreboard operators as well, who took several minutes to confirm that the South Korean side had drawn level. But Guangzhou deservedly held on for victory, winning over the two legs of the tie on away goals.

Quite how the mood might have turned if FC Seoul had grabbed a late winner is best left to the imagination. But the only sour note came late in the game when an official from the Korean team hurled a ball at the unmentionables of one of the Guangzhou players. Sent off by the referee, he was showered in plastic bottles by angry fans as he headed for the tunnel.

At the final whistle there was widespread euphoria. One man sitting nearby sobbed openly. The party continued late into the night, with fireworks, and a celebratory concert from female Cantopop star Joey Yung. Elaborately choreographed dance routines on the pitch gave the feel of an Olympic closing ceremony.

Marcello, the master

One of the loudest roars of the evening came as Marcello Lippi, Evergrande’s Italian coach, walked out onto the pitch before kick-off, and after the win he was back in the spotlight as his players threw him skywards in tribute.

Lippi’s pay is supposed to be sky-high too – €10 million ($13.45 million) a year or at least 60 times more than his managerial counterpart at FC Seoul, Choi Yong-soo, according to ESPN contributor John Duerden.

But the Italian has always argued that he came to China for the glory and not just the cash, and he will feel vindicated as the first coach to win Champions League titles in both Europe and Asia, following his triumph with Juventus in 1996.

Further honours including five Serie A titles in Italy make Lippi’s resume difficult to beat. But asked how he classed Saturday’s win, he put its importance as second only to his 2006 World Cup triumph as Italy’s coach. “I won the UEFA Champions League and this would be at an equal level,” he told the media throng. “Not only are we talking about the tournament but also because I have been with this team for two years now and I’ve seen them psychologically and physically grow, and the team is much more organised.”

Vindication for Xu Jiayin, too?

Xu is the property tycoon who purchased the club shortly after it was relegated for involvement in match fixing. Later he brought in expensive foreign players like Dario Conca, before recruiting Lippi to manage the team.

The results have been impressive: three Chinese titles in a row (and winning the league this year with six games to spare), the AFC Champions League triumph last weekend, and the team poised to compete with Bayern Munich at the FIFA Club World Cup in Morocco next month.

Most of the Chinese media puts Evergrande’s success down to Lippi’s leadership, and his insistence that the team is more important than individuals. Also credited: Xu’s massive investment in transfer fees, salaries and performance-related bonuses for the players (the cash pool for winning the AFC Champions League was Rmb104 million).

Evergrande is easily the most successful of the property firms that own domestic clubs, including Guizhou Renhe which finished fourth in the domestic league, Guangzhou R&F (managed by former England boss Sven Goran Eriksson), and Hangzhou Greentown.

But the financial backers at other clubs often have extensive property interests as well, leading fans to adapt the government slogan ‘only socialism can save China’ to a football-friendly version that ‘only real estate can save China’ instead.

A win for Chinese football in general?

The stadium’s noisiest group of supporters sported a huge banner which read “We are Canton” (Canton is a historical version of the city’s name). But this was more than just a Guangzhou party with many fans from other parts of China at the match (if the teeming lobby at WiC’s hotel was an indication).

The game was also a national hit on television, pulling in more viewers than any other sporting event in China this year with an average audience of more than 30 million. Most watched on the national broadcaster CCTV-5, although CSM Media Research reports that massive numbers tuned in on regional channels in places like Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai too.

Nick Mould, President of East Asia at World Sport Group hailed the viewing figures, as well as the combined attendance of 110,000 over the fixture’s two legs, as further evidence of the tournament’s growing commercial clout.

At the final whistle China’s national flag was soon being unfurled by players and fans, and the crowd belted out Ode to the Motherland. Congratulations came in from around the country as well. “After 24 years, the Asia Cup has returned to China. Evergrande, this battle will live on in our memories forever,” cheered Liaoning’s provincial government on its official weibo.

Where Evergrande leads, the game could follow?

This is the hope for fans of Chinese teams, including the national side. After all, Xu transformed Guangzhou’s fortunes in a very short period, buying the club in early 2010 when it was still in disgrace over a match-fixing scandal dating back to 2006.

The makeover delivered a more professional model that planned for the longer term, investing in experienced management, buying good players but developing them within a team environment, and incentivising the team to win with competitive pay and bonuses.

It may not sound like groundbreaking stuff but the Chinese media has promoted the theme that Evergrande is showing the way forward for a sport long mired in domestic scandal and subpar performance.

“The glory of the ‘Evergrande model’ is definitely a positive. It breaks the old order and opens a new window for Chinese football, making the game more watchable and more professional,” argued the People’s Daily.

“We always say that China first started to develop ‘professional football’ 20 years ago and the Chinese Super League has run for 10 years. But it has been constrained by the administrative system and has never really entered the professional era, not to mention a market-oriented one. The change starts with Evergrande.”

So the model can be copied?

The congratulations from the game’s regulator were more tight-lipped. “This is the highest honour for Chinese football,” acknowledged the Chinese Football Association. “We sincerely hope you keep working hard but guard against pride and impatience.”

Some of the talk about Xu and Evergrande as football revolutionaries is overdone. Like many of China’s tycoons, Xu is hardly a rebel outsider – he serves as a delegate to the country’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Nor is Evergrande the first company to invest heavily in football. Other firms have ploughed in money in the past, falling away when times got hard economically or the performance on the pitch disappointed.

But Evergrande’s golden run has been exceptional. The club is now so far ahead of the rest, in fact, that it might dissuade others from trying to copy them, Cameron Wilson, editor of the website Wild East Football, told Al Jazeera this month.

Wilson also noted that Evergrande “lose an awful lot of money on the team” – Xu is said to have pumped in more than half a billion renminbi so far – and that other clubs may not want to “splash out just to finish second”.

An alternate scenario: other tycoons see this as a turning point for the game and copy Xu by spending big as well.

In the past, companies have bought teams to generate publicity or to curry favour with government officials. Discussion of the financial returns on club ownership seems limited, although the China Daily thinks there might be benefits, noting that Evergrande sold more floor space than any of its rivals in the first three quarters of the year.

The media also picked up on a new shirt sponsor for the final, a bottled water brand called Evergrande Spring that Xu has just launched. Thanks to the match, it got national exposure.

But the Apple Daily sounded a warning on the financial prospects for owners, claiming that property developers without football commitments have reported better share price performance this year. For this group, the average share price fell 1%. But according to the newspaper, firms associated with football have seen their shares drop by an average of almost 12%.

Despite its team’s success, Evergrande’s shares have done even worse, down 26% for the year so far.

Can the triumph be repeated at the national level?

This is the fundamental question for a national team that has qualified for the World Cup finals only once (in 2002, when it didn’t manage to score a single goal).

The failure is keenly felt, including by China’s president. Two years ago Xi Jinping said that his three wishes as a fan were for his country to qualify for the World Cup, to host a World Cup tournament and eventually to win one too. He talked again about his love for the game last month, hoping that China would make it to the World Cup finals in the “not-so-distant future”.

In football terms China’s recent experience has only got more nightmarish, reaching a nadir in the 5-1 thrashing by Thailand in June (coincidentally enough, on Xi Jinping’s birthday).

The media response to that result was fury. Football has long been regarded as “a platform for displaying national strength”, the Southern Metropolis Daily argued, and countries like Japan and South Korea had seen their own soccer standards increase in tandem with their “national power”. So why wasn’t China seeing the same?

Maybe that made it more significant that Evergrande beat a team from South Korea last weekend, as Korean club sides have won three of the last four AFC Champions League titles. Lippi alluded to something similar in pre-match interviews, claiming that Chinese teams are starting to lose their inferiority complex when they play against Korean or Japanese clubs.

But the counter argument is that it was a foreign coach and foreign players that powered Guangzhou to glory, not Chinese stars. Or as a weibo wag put it: “At Evergrande nothing is Chinese except for the money.”

From WiC’s seat last Saturday night there was no denying that Evergrande’s best players were the four foreign ones, particularly Dario Conca, the Argentine playmaker, and Muruqui and Elkeson, the two Brazilian forwards. The South American imports have been crucial to Evergrande’s triumph, bagging 16 of the 17 goals scored in the last six matches in the tournament.

“Can a big win save Chinese football?” asked China News Service. “The answer is no, not only because all the key players are foreign, but also because a single victory by a regional football club can’t be presented as a sign of strength for Chinese football in general.”

“The truth is that Guangzhou Evergrande and the national team have no relationship except co-owning the Chinese players,” the Southern Metropolis Daily agreed.

“On the field we saw Guangzhou Evergrande become China Guangzhou Evergrande. The word ‘China’ created a win-win situation for the moment. But it isn’t sustainable as the fans will eventually ask for victory from China’s football team, not Guangzhou’s. And as long as the national team doesn’t improve this ‘victory illusion’ will burst.”

The comparisons will be drawn again later today as China’s national team takes on Indonesia in the qualifying rounds for the Asian Cup, the regional equivalent to the European Championships.

Better bottom up, than top down?

Despite the focus on the foreign players, Evergrande’s starting line did include seven Chinese nationals. That’s more home players than most of the club sides competing for European glory can offer, especially the English ones. Manchester United fielded just three English players for its trip to Real Sociedad last week, for instance, while Arsenal beat Borussia Dortmund with just one Englishman in the starting team.

Each of Evergrande’s Chinese players has won international caps, which gives some hope that the experience of winning at club level under a globally-respected manager will help to build a more confident, more capable national side.

But others claim that China would do better to focus on a football revolution at the grass roots, addressing cultural issues like parental reluctance to let their only children spend too much time away from the school books or remedying glaring shortages of soccer pitches and qualified coaches.

Football is also a rare example in which China doesn’t come out top in the numbers game, suffering from a much smaller playing pool than other countries. According to Tom Byer, hired last year by the government as Head Technical Advisor to the Chinese School Football Programme, the number of under-twelves in accredited programmes fell to a fraction of other countries. Participation has started to increase but Byer says it will be 10 years before the national game starts to see real benefits.

Again, the hope is that Evergrande’s success might have a trickle-down impact, encouraging more children to play and cultivating a new generation capable of propelling the national team up the rankings. But much more investment in the grass roots is needed, something that Evergrande has recognised by putting money into a football academy near its hometown (see WiC196).

“We are showing the way,” Lippi told “The biggest problem is that Chinese football does not have a rich long-term culture and this means that the number of children who have contact with football is less than elsewhere.” Others now need to follow the same model, Lippi suggested. “The clubs simply have to build a few pitches and then allow some of the former players to be coaches. Spending money only to buy a few big name players will not solve the problems of Chinese football.”

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