AFC Champions League to kick off amid high expectations

Buoyed by the AFC Champions League success of Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande, mainland clubs are riding a wave of revival into new season

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 February, 2014, 2:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 February, 2014, 11:35am

Until late last year, mainland fans had few reasons to cheer throughout the preceding decade; with the national team in decline and bribery scandals dogging the Chinese Super League and the Chinese Football Association, there was little about which to be positive.

But as Zheng Zhi and Marcello Lippi joined together to raise the AFC Champions League trophy into the Guangzhou night sky at Tianhe Stadium last November, the mood was already changing.

Guangzhou Evergrande's victory in the continental club championship - the first time a Chinese club had been crowned Asian champions since Liaoning FC in 1990 - signalled the return of Chinese soccer as a force within the regional game.

The goal for the 2014 season is simple. Defend our Chinese Super League title
Marcello Lippi 

Not since the days of Dalian Wanda, and their run to the final of the old Asian Club Championship final in 1998, or the national team's qualification for the finals of the 2002 World Cup has the mood been so upbeat.

What had previously been a quietly growing undercurrent of positivism, despite the high-profile problems, finally bubbled to the surface and mainland soccer goes into the 2014 season in its most buoyant mood for close to a generation.

On and off the field, the stories are encouraging. The AFC Champions League, in the wake of Guangzhou's success, has signed up the competition's first Chinese sponsors - brewer Tsingtao and heavy machinery manufacturer SDLG inked deals at the end of last year - after a season in which the competition was watched by record numbers on television.

Those figures included more than 30 million mainland fans tuning in to watch the second leg of the final, in which Guangzhou drew 1-1 with FC Seoul to win the title on the away goals rule, the largest television audience for a sports event in China for 2013, surpassing Li Na's run to the final of the Australian Open.

Money is also flowing into clubs across the nation, reflecting the country's growing economy and the desire of many wealthy businessmen to curry favour with a political elite that sees sport - and especially soccer - as a way to project China's increasingly influential position on the regional and global stage.

As a result, the AFC Champions League - which kicks off the new season on Tuesday - has become the battleground upon which mainland clubs and their owners seek to put their wares on display.

While the national team suffer due to a lack of long-term investment in development and coaching, wealthy club owners are enticing higher-quality foreign players and coaches to boost the standard and status of the country's clubs.

Leading the way have been Guangzhou, and their victory in last season's AFC Champions League marked the high point of a four-season-long assault on all fronts as the club claimed three consecutive Chinese Super League titles.

A clean sweep of domestic titles over the same period was only halted by Guizhou Renhe's win over Evergrande in last season's Chinese FA Cup final.

That trophy win - the first in Guizhou's history - ensured Gong Lei's side booked a place in the group stages of the AFC Champions League for the second season in a row, and for the Guiyang-based side there have been few changes to the squad that were eliminated in the opening round last year.

The club most likely to challenge Guangzhou's authority - both domestically and, potentially, on the continental stage - are CSL runners-up Shandong Luneng who, despite finishing 18 points adrift of the summit last year, will be hopeful of making the jump up to the top step of the podium in 2014.

Shandong have undergone major changes, with coach Radomir Antic replaced by Brazilian Cuca, who guided Atletico Mineiro to the Copa Libertadores title last season, while Lebanese playmaker Roda Antar has made way for Argentina international Walter Montillo.

They join Brazilian striker Vagner Love - who made his name during an impressive spell with CSKA Moscow and who signed for Shandong midway through last season - in a squad that come close to matching Guangzhou's for potency, boasting Chinese internationals Han Peng, Wang Dalei and Yang Xu.

Beijing Guoan round out China's representation in the 2014 AFC Champions League after cruising past Chonburi from Thailand in the play-offs to join J.League champions Sanfrecce Hiroshima, last year's beaten finalists FC Seoul and Central Coast Mariners from Australia in group F.

Now managed by former Mallorca coach Gregorio Manzano, Beijing will be hoping to improve on last season's run to the round of 16.

As for Guangzhou, the quest to cement their status as the undisputed kings of Asia begins on Wednesday when they host Australia's Melbourne Victory with several subtle changes to the side that made history.

Gone is highly influential midfielder Dario Conca, the Argentinian ending his tenure in southern China after two-and-a-half hugely successful years to return to Fluminense, the Brazilian club from which Guangzhou signed him for a record fee back in mid-2011.

In his place has come Alessandro Diamanti, picked up from Serie A side Bologna and a current Italy international. His arrival signals that Guangzhou continue to be a draw and their ambition will remain undimmed when he lines up in a side that features Muriqui, last year's AFC Champions League MVP, and Elkeson, as well as Chinese stalwarts Zheng Zhi, Zhang Linpeng and Gao Lin.

Meanwhile, Lippi, whose arrival almost two years ago proved the final piece in the Evergrande revolution, remains at the helm, despite misplaced speculation he would abandon the final year of his contract to work with the beleaguered national side.

Guangzhou's success in the AFC Champions League also played a major role in the club securing a lucrative shirt sponsorship deal with Japanese car manufacturer Nissan.

Signed for one year and worth a reported 110 million yuan (HK$140 million), the deal is comparable with all but the very biggest clubs in world soccer.

But while their historic win at continental level last year has sparked an arms race at the very top of mainland soccer, and for all of the country's aspirations for further Asian success, Lippi - a man who steered Juventus to five Serie A titles - has his eyes set on one task above all others.

"The goal for the 2014 season is simple," the 2006 Fifa World Cup winner said recently. "Defend our Chinese Super League title."