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Asian Eye - Can Guangzhou’s ACL success drag Chinese football out of the doldrums?

The modern world’s biggest sporting conundrum: why are China so terrible at fooball? With the biggest population on the planet, the second biggest economy on Earth, a generation of football-loving youngsters coming of age, Chinese football really should be in a stronger position than it is.

Yet, there are glimmers of hope for Chinese football – and Nicolas Anelka’s arrival in China’s Super League suggests a new dawn is at hand.

Yet more surprising still than the signing of Anelka was the result of a single AFC Champions League match. On March 7, a mild spring evening in Korea’s Northern Jeolla province, Chinese club football experienced an epiphany.

Jeonbuk Hyundai, the reigning Korean champions, AFC Champions League Finalists in 2011, and, many would argue, the best club team in Asia, are mauled at home by Chinese opposition, Guangzhou Evergrande (pictured) - 1-5 is the final score.

It is not a result that suggests China, the sleeping giant of world football, is awake. Not just yet. But maybe the giant is growing restless, hope is on the horizon.

Plain awful 

Although most people may be aware of Chinese football’s impotence, casual non-observers are not aware how deep the chasm is. The national team is just plain awful – they have only ever qualified for a single World Cup – in Japan-Korea 2002, where they failed to score a single goal.

China has also failed to qualify for the fourth and final round of 2014 Asian World Cup qualifying, something even minnows like Lebanon, Oman and Qatar managed.

The domestic game is plagued by match-fixing; in February, five Chinese referees were sent to prison for taking bribes. Worse still, there are signs that China isn’t even very good at rigging results. Scandal reigned after a disastrous Sichuan FC-Qingdao game in 2009, when a Qingdao coach blabbed to the media that the clubs’ CEO had lost his temper with the backroom staff because they “couldn’t even fix a match properly”.

Chinese club football lags behind the rest of Asia, but it is a state of affairs that defies rational thinking. China purportedly even invented the game of football, with an ancient sport called cuju. The Middle Kingdom’s ever-growing middle class certainly have a great interest in football, and they have the money to splurge on tickets, memorabilia and sports TV packages.

Investment 

Bigger Chinese companies are willing to invest money too – Evergrande Guangzhou’s venture has seen them splash some serious cash. They splurged over £8million on Fluminese’s Dario Conca, twice winner of the Brazilian Player of the Year award. They have also recruited one of the top coaches in the country, Korean manager Lee Jung-soo, and are skippered by former Celtic and Charlton star Zheng Zhi.

Chinese company Renhe have also invested big in football, paying to uproot one of the best-supported teams in the Chinese Super League, Xi’an-based Shaanxi, to Guizhou, and renaming the club Guizhou Renhe.

Last year also saw Dalian Wanda, a company that only a decade ago pulled out of football sponsorship citing corruption as the reason, return to invest big. The company pledged a wedge of cash to develop youth football in China, which will see talented youngsters sent abroad to train in Spain, Italy and Germany.

The Nicolas Anelka transfer has been the most exciting piece of news in the Super League for some time however. A former Real Madrid, Arsenal, Chelsea and France national team star playing for Shanghai Shenua is major news in China, and attendance at home games is set to soar as a result.

Shenua also pulled off a coup by snapping up Reading striker and Anelka’s countryman, Mathieu Manet, on loan from the Championship club. Encouraging news continues in Shanghai as Shenua continue in their very public pursuit of another big name - they plan to lure Didier Drogba to the club, saying that they have left the number 11 shirt vacant for him, should he chose to sign with them.

Big fish 

However, China still has many rivers to cross if it wishes to see its sides turn into big fish in the Asian pond. Despite the recent investment and the Anelka transfer, the Super League is decades behind other leagues on the continent. Japan’s J-League sees clubs fill their stadiums, and the level of football is streets ahead of China. South Korea’s K-League is arguably the best league in the area - South Korean teams have won the Asian Champions League more than teams from any other nation.

And the playthings of oil-rich tycoons, the likes of FC Bunyodkor, the former home of Rivaldo and Luiz Scolari, regularly outshine Super League teams in the Asian Champions League.

But the result in Northern Jeolla could resonate for Chinese teams – Jeonbuk are now in danger of being eliminated from a competition they were favourites to win, and Guangzhaou stand every chance of reaching the next round. To expect a Chinese club to win the ACL this year might be a dream too far, but this sort of 1-5 demolition of a major foreign club side is unheard of in Chinese football.

It represents a corner turned for the bigger Chinese clubs. Although it does not answer the question of why the Chinese have been so hopeless at football for so long, it does suggest hope for its fans. The nightmare, they hope, could be near its end.

By Tim Alper

Tim Alper writes for South Korea's leading football monthly magazine, Best Eleven 


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