AFC Champions League

Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi flies the flag on the mainland

Midfielder has built up an impressive résumé home and abroad and his first continental title would be icing on the cake

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 November, 2013, 12:29am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 November, 2013, 12:30am

It's hardly a secret that Chinese football has had little to shout about throughout the last decade, but when the rare shafts of light have speared through the dark clouds, Zheng Zhi has invariably been at or near the centre of proceedings.

Guangzhou Evergrande's captain was just 24 years old when he featured for the national team in the final of the AFC Asian Cup, when China lost 3-1 to Japan in what was the last appearance by any team from the country in the deciding match of a continental championship.

While Chinese football has limped along since, Zheng has gone on to build a successful résumé at home and abroad, hoovering up silverware in an enviable career.

Winning is not just about me but about the team and football in China
Zheng Zhi

League titles with Shenzhen Jianlibao and Shandong Luneng were followed by four seasons in Europe, signing for Charlton Athletic in England before spending a season at Celtic.

His return to China saw him join Guangzhou early in the club's rebuilding process and he has since been integral to the rise from the second division in 2010 and the three successive Chinese Super League titles.

But victory against FC Seoul would give Zheng, who has previously been nominated for the AFC Player of the Year Award, something he has never acquired - a continental title.

"It would mean a lot to me to win the game, although winning is not just about me but about the team and football in China," said the versatile 33-year-old.

"I have won awards in England and China, but this would be my first international award and it would mean a lot."

Success would also go some way towards lessening the bitterness of the memory of losing to Japan at Workers' Stadium nine years ago when, under Dutchman Arie Haan, China fell short in front of their home fans.

The loss, two years after appearing at the finals of the World Cup in South Korea and Japan, signalled the beginning of the decline of China's national team.

Months later, Haan was ousted after his team were eliminated from the qualifying competition for Germany 2006 and since then the national side has gone through spells of deep despair and unrealistic hope.

Guangzhou's run to the final, however, has reignited the nation's passion for the game and it is no surprise that Zheng is at the heart of the revival.

"There's a big difference between the final in 2004 and now," he said. "In 2004 we were playing for the national team while this is about the club.

"But the players will be the same and we will do what we usually do and we will play cool and calm.

"We're in great shape and the players who were injured are back and we feel very excited about the game. With the help of the fans here we can win the title this year."

Few who have featured in Chinese football, now or at any stage of the country's history, will have deserved it more than Zheng Zhi.