Guangzhou Evergrande is continuing to establish itself as Asia’s super-club, but the Chinese powerhouse is not content to settle for continental domination… (日本語版はこちらです)
As anyone who witnessed their elaborate Asian Champions League celebrations can attest to, Guangzhou Evergrande don’t do things by halves.
The Chinese club claimed a fifth consecutive Chinese Super League title at the end of October, and reasserted itself as the dominant side in Asia a few weeks later, beating Al Ahli 1-0 on aggregate in the ACL final to seal a second continental triumph in three years.
The Canton side has received much attention for splashing the cash on players and A-List coaches since being taken over by the Evergrande Group in 2010, but its reputation is being built on much more than the top-grade foreigners recruited on and off the pitch.
Plans are afoot to list on the stock market, for instance (with the club valued at around US$380 million), a new stadium is in the pipeline, and a 167-acre academy has been built to accommodate 2,300 students recruited from all across the country.
At its opening in 2012, chairman of Evergrande Group Xu Jiayin made it clear that bringing in stars from overseas was only the first step on the road to building a team that could truly represent China and Asia on the world stage in the future. “Our long-term strategy is to use teenagers to turn Evergrande into a team of only domestic players in eight to 10 years, making them stars in China, Asia and the world,” he said.
The man currently tasked with overseeing that development while still delivering titles is Luiz Felipe Scolari; a World Cup winning coach who has the credentials, charisma, and confidence to lead a club with such lofty ambitions – as he proved after the ACL win.
“My next target is actually to win the Club World Cup – and why not? This is a great club with great players and we can realize that kind of dream,” the former Brazil national team boss said, before channeling his inner-Barack Obama. “I will end my comment with a famous saying: Yes, we can.”
A team as dominant and financially-endowed as Guangzhou can certainly be forgiven for setting its sights high, but the fact remains that there is still a vast gulf in the overall quality of Asian football and that in Europe. As impressive as Evergrande are when on song, they just don’t come up against high-level opposition regularly enough to consider themselves on a par with the biggest clubs in the game.
“I understand that we have a long way to go before we can achieve success in the Club World Cup, but you have to understand that Evergrande have achieved two ACL titles in three years and we are still improving a lot,” Scolari said.
“Of course there is a certain difference in quality between us and the best teams in Europe, but right now because our level is still improving day by day we can dream about going to the Club World Cup and achieving something.
“The job me and my coaching staff have is to share the experience we have with big teams with the club here in Guangzhou. Now at the Club World Cup we will face Club America and then, who knows, maybe will compete with Barcelona also. This is a great and new experience for Chinese football. I can tell you, the Chinese are quick learners. They are intelligent and anyone who denies that is wrong. The Chinese are learning and maybe in two or three years time we can dream of achieving even greater things.”
Indeed, while the likes of Elkeson – whose title-winning goal against Al Ahli was a finish of the highest order – Ricardo Goulart, and Paulinho hog many of the headlines, the performances of local players such as Feng Xiaoting, Zheng Zhi, and Huang Bowen have been vital to the team’s success.
However, Evergrande’s style and potential is best epitomized by Zhang Linpeng. The 26-year-old’s aggression, speed, and fearlessness have established him as one of the highest-rated players in Asia, and each time he embarks on one of his buccaneering runs from right-back Tianhe Stadium roars in anticipation.
After sealing the 0-0 draw away to Gamba Osaka that booked Guangzhou’s place in the ACL final in October, Paulinho said he had no doubts his teammate was good enough to play in Europe, and the Jinan native was the recipient of interest from Chelsea in the summer.
“That we were able to win the title today both for myself and also many of my teammates is a very proud moment,” Zhang told me after the final. “The next few days we’ll take a rest and spend some time with our families – it’s a very happy time. Then we’ll come back, get back into the routine and start preparing for the Club World Cup.
“Of course when you’re playing on the world stage maybe in comparison we’re not at the same level as some teams, but we’re a great team, we have a great spirit, and we know how to deal with these kind of games. The coach will prepare us well and give us the best chance of achieving success.”
The foundations are undoubtedly all in place for Guangzhou, and it will be fascinating to see how they continue to build on them – starting with their trip to Japan to mix it with the big boys this month.