Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Hopes raised for scandal-hit Chinese soccer after Guangzhou Evergrande's Asian success

By Katie Hunt and Feng Ke, CNN
November 13, 2013 -- Updated 0729 GMT (1529 HKT)
Guangzhou Evergrande fans celebrate as they leave the stadium following their team's victory against FC Seoul in the AFC Champions League on Saturday.
Guangzhou Evergrande fans celebrate as they leave the stadium following their team's victory against FC Seoul in the AFC Champions League on Saturday.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chinese team Guangzhou Evergrande have become Asian champions
  • Hopes high that victory will give Chinese football a much-needed boost
  • Chinese game has been dogged by scandals and poor performance
  • They will now compete in FIFA Club World Cup in December

(CNN) -- Wei Guoqiang has been following Chinese football for more than 20 years but reasons to celebrate have been few and far between.

"It's like the Chinese saying; 'you always think your children are the most beautiful no matter how ugly they are,'" the 30-year-old education specialist told CNN in Beijing.

Dogged by poor performances on the pitch and corruption scandals off it, the Chinese game has been far from beautiful.

But die-hard soccer fans like Wei finally have something to cheer about.

Guangzhou Evergrande, a soccer team based in the southern city of Guangzhou, became Asian champions on Saturday, beating South Korea's FC Seoul to claim China's first continental title in 23 years in a stadium packed to capacity with fans wearing the team's blood-red colors.

Reversal of football fortunes in China?
China investors look to Italian football
Didier Drogba welcomed to China
Anelka heads to China on bumper deal

"They are persistent and never surrender," said Wei, who watched the match on television at home.

Evergrande will now play in the FIFA Club World Cup in December, pitting the team against the likes of German giants and reigning European champions Bayern Munich. Previous winners of the tournament include Chelsea, Manchester United and Barcelona.

READ: Chinese soccer: Vanity project or emerging superpower?

China last tasted international success at club level in 1990 when Liaoning lifted the trophy of the now expired Asian Club Championship. Its national team has also punched below the country's weight.

Despite being one of the country's most popular sports -- President Xi Jinping is said to be a big fan -- China failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup and did not enter the running for the 2018 tournament.

Evergrande's rise to the top of Asian football has been fast and furious and some say it could be Asia's first "superclub."

In early 2010, the team was bought by Xu Jiayin, the boss of property developer Evergrande Real Estate Group and China's 13th richest man, according to Forbes.

He paid 100 million yuan ($16.4 million) for the club, shocking many as the team had recently been relegated to the second division of China's league. In 2011, they won the Chinese Super League and claimed the league title for the third time this year.

Dong Jianzheng, an editor at the Chinese-language World Soccer Magazine, credits Xu's deep pockets as the main reason for the team's success.

The club has spent at least 1.5 billion yuan ($250 million) in the past three years, according to The China Daily, recruiting domestic stars and foreign players like Brazilian striker Muriqui. The team is led by Marcello Lippi, who coached the Italian team that won the 2006 World Cup.

"The Evergrande model is similar to Chelsea and Manchester, where they win simply because they invest," Dong told CNN.

"They have a strong team and a large number of foreign players. They are good because they dare to throw in their money."

But he said Evergrande's success doesn't represent the big picture.

A bribery investigation that led to several players, referees and managers serving jail terms has left many fans disillusioned with the Chinese game.

Rowan Simons, the author of "Bamboo Goalposts: One man's quest to teach the People's Republic of China to love football", says corruption reaches down to the sport's grassroots, which suffer from a lack of investment.

"Parents will bribe the coach to get (their child) into the team, teams will bribe the referee to win the game," said Simons, who has lived and played football in China for more than 20 years.

READ: Beckham becomes new face of Chinese soccer

Hopes are high that Evergrande's arrival on the international soccer stage will give a much-needed boost to the country's football system.

The president of the Asian Football Confederation, which runs the region's premier tournament, said that Evergrande's win would infuse new life into Chinese football and spread the game to a wider audience.

"I am confident that this will benefit not only the Chinese Super League but also the national team in a big way," said Shaikh Salman bin Ebrahim.

But they will have a hard time convincing fans like Cui, an engineer, who spends his spare time glued to the English Premier League, Europe's UEFA Champions League and Spain's La Liga.

He says he won't make the effort to watch Evergrande's FIFA Club World Cup match against Egyptian side Al Ahly in December.

"The time difference is a challenge, but I still choose foreign matches because they are much more professional," he told CNN.

CNN's Feng Ke reported from Beijing, Katie Hunt wrote and reported from Hong Kong

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 0551 GMT (1351 HKT)
David McKenzie meets some American teenagers who are spending a year in China to be fully immersed in the culture.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 0259 GMT (1059 HKT)
Chinese students show a handmade red ribbon one day ahead of the the World AIDS Day, at a school in Hanshan, east China's Anhui province on November 30, 2009.
The Chinese government pledges to protect a boy with HIV, who was shunned by his entire village in Sichuan, state media reported.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1144 GMT (1944 HKT)
A Chinese couple allegedly threw hot water on a flight attendant and threatened to blow up the plane.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 0503 GMT (1303 HKT)
China's 1.3 billion citizens may soon find it much harder to belt out their national anthem at will.
December 10, 2014 -- Updated 0021 GMT (0821 HKT)
Los Angeles in the last century went through its own smog crisis. The city's mayor says LA's experience delivers valuable lessons for Beijing.
December 6, 2014 -- Updated 0542 GMT (1342 HKT)
At the height of his power, security chief Zhou Yongkang controlled China's police, spy agencies and courts. Now, he's under arrest.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 0826 GMT (1626 HKT)
China says it will end organ transplants from executed prisoners but tradition means that donors are unlikely to make up the shortfall.
December 5, 2014 -- Updated 0648 GMT (1448 HKT)
China's skylines could look a lot more uniform in the years to come, if a statement by a top Beijing official is to believed.
December 3, 2014 -- Updated 0855 GMT (1655 HKT)
Despite a high-profile anti-corruption drive, China's position on an international corruption index has deteriorated in the past year.
November 26, 2014 -- Updated 1201 GMT (2001 HKT)
A daring cross-border raid by one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's associates has -- so far -- yet to sour Sino-Russian relations.
November 24, 2014 -- Updated 0051 GMT (0851 HKT)
A 24-hour bookstore in Taipei is a popular hangout for both hipsters and bookworms.
November 25, 2014 -- Updated 0153 GMT (0953 HKT)
China is building an island in the South China Sea that could accommodate an airstrip, according to IHS Jane's Defence Weekly.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1057 GMT (1857 HKT)
North Korean refugees and defectors face a daunting journey to reach asylum in South Korea, with gangs of smugglers the only option.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 2319 GMT (0719 HKT)
China and "probably one or two other" countries have the capacity to shut down the nation's power grid and other critical infrastructure.
ADVERTISEMENT