How Darío Conca, once one of the world’s highest-paid players, helped kick-start the boom in Chinese football

How Darío Conca, once one of the world’s highest-paid players, helped kick-start the boom in Chinese football

The slight Argentine dances on the green carpet in the grand amphitheatre. Like a Tango terpsichorean to a milonga milieu, he frisks and frolics, startling everybody lucky enough to have a ticket for his performance. His finishing move, a sweeping, left-footed gancho around the ball towards the goal, leaves the watching audience in awe. His name? Darío Conca.

In the red, green and white suit of Fluminense, the prizes for his show in the 2010 edition of the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A were the league trophy, the club’s first in 26 years, and the Prêmio Craque do Brasileirão, awarded to the competition’s player of the year. In a team which included Juliano Belletti, Deco and Fred, it was high praise indeed.

He had made his professional debut aged 15 for Tigre in Argentina’s Primera Nacional B. He attracted the interest of River Plate, and signed in 2000. He waited until 2003, though, for his first-team debut, a 1-0 defeat to Chacarita Juniors. Between 2004 and 2007, he had loan spells at Universidad Católica, Rosario Central and Vasco da Gama. His performances did little to warrant a starting berth at River under Daniel Passarella, in a squad which contained Ariel Ortega and fledgeling youngsters Radamel Falcao and Alexis Sánchez, so he moved temporarily, again, to Fluminense for the 2008 season. 

He starred alongside Thiago Silva, Thiago Neves and Washington. Known as the Time de Guerreiros – the Team of Warriors – Tricolor progressed to the final of the Copa Libertadores, losing to Liga de Quito on penalties after a 5-5 tie over two legs.

He signed a three-year deal to remain in Rio de Janeiro permanently ahead of the 2009 season, but Carlos Alberto Parreira’s side struggled for league form. He was sacked and replaced by Renato Gaúcho, who was returning to the club for his third spell as manager in seven years. However, he was unable to lead a change in fortunes, and he was sacked with his side in 20th place, rock bottom, after a 2-0 defeat to Santos the following September. It was Cuca, who had made a habit of saving the day in 21 jobs in the previous ten years, who led Conca and co to safety.

It was the aforementioned 2010 season which followed that saw Conca emerge as one of the Brazilian’s game’s best players, as Fluminense moved from 16th place at the end of the 2009 campaign to league champions within a year. 

Over 10,000 miles away, in the teeming metropolis of Guangzhou, the banks of the Pearl River were trembling amid the convulsions of a football revolution. The city’s football club, Guangzhou Evergrande, had been taken over by the Guangzhou Real Estate Group. Under their ownership, the club returned to the Chinese Super League for the 2011 season after a 3-1 win against Hunan Billows.

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They began their return campaign well, winning eight and drawing four of their first 12 matches. The signings of Chinese football luminaries Gao Lin and Sun Xiang had helped the newly-promoted side avoid the customary battle against relegation and leapfrog their way to challenging for the league title, but the club – including manager Lee Jang-soo – had bigger ambitions than national dominance; they had already been knocked out of the Chinese FA Cup by Guizhou Zhicheng, too, which only fomented their ambitions further. 

They needed a totem for Chinese football; a football giant who would help the club become one of the best in Asia. As it transpired, their demiurge of choice was rather diminutive: five-foot-five Conca, who transferred in July 2011. The 28-year-old signed for a fee of €10m, which was a club-record fee. In his two-and-a-half year deal, he was paid an annual salary of €10.4m, which made him the third-highest paid player in world football behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. 

You get the impression that he was handed a deal that paid him more than all-but Messi of Barcelona’s Champions League winners of 2011 because the owners simply could. Conca had given no indication that he was influenced by money, but Guangzhou had attested they were set on dominating Chinese, Asian and world football.

Conca, though, repaid the faith – and renminbi – shown to him. The first of his nine goals in the remaining 15 games of the CSL season was a stirring strike from 25 yards out into the bottom-left corner against Nanchang Hengyuan in a 5-0 win, which was met by equally ardent celebrations by the club’s faithful inside the Tianhe Stadium. They had discerned his propensity from his first touch in a red shirt. 

Two weeks later, he scored a brace in a 4-0 win against Qingdao Jonoon. His first, an embellishment to a labyrinthine move, was bettered by his second, a free-kick from 30 yards out which was dispatched over the wall into the roof of the net. A 2-1 loss to Changchun Yatai ended a club-record 44-game unbeaten run, but it did little to dampen the spirits as the club celebrated their first title ten days later following a 4-1 rout of Shaanxi Renhe. Fittingly, it was Conca who scored the game’s final goal, with a composed finish with his increasingly-infamous left foot.

Guangzhou continued the 2012 season from where they left off, with Conca in fine fettle. They won the Chinese Super Cup for the first time in the club’s history thanks to a 2-1 win against Tianjin Teda. Two weeks later, he scored his first two goals of the season in a 5-1 victory away to the K League’s Jeonbuk in the AFC Champions League. He then scored five in the first eight rounds of league matches, and three in four Champions League ties as his side moved into first place of both competitions. 

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However, the Guangzhou ship, which had enjoyed plain sailing on the Pearl River since their promotion to the CSL the previous year, met its first sign of trouble in May 2012. In the return fixture against Jeonbuk, Conca put Guangzhou ahead from the penalty spot after Zhang Linpeng had been fouled. Ahead of a busy league schedule, Jang-soo decided to withdraw him with the score at 1-0. In the Argentine’s absence, Jeonbuk scored three times to win 3-1, with Lee Dong-gook scoring twice in injury-time.

Conca took to Weibo, a Chinese social media platform which currently has 445 million users, to voice his frustrations two days later. The following day, he was banned for nine matches and fined ¥1m by Jang-soo. 

However, Jang-soo soon became a victim of his own success at the club. Guangzhou’s immediate triumph in the CSL, impressive squad, seemingly limitless financial backing and prodigious ambitions, during a time in which Chinese football’s eminence began to augment, made them an attractive proposition to the greatest of managers. On 18 May 2012, the South Korean was replaced by Italy’s World Cup-winning coach in 2006, Marcello Lippi. Soon after, he revoked Conca’s ban from first-team action.

It was not only Guangzhou’s manager’s berth which was a precarious position. Conca had scored seven goals in his first 11 2012 CSL appearances, but the signing of Lucas Barrios from Borussia Dortmund saw his place under threat. Having been Fluminense and then Guangzhou’s star attacking player, the idea of playing in an ancillary role was not appealing to him. He handed in a transfer request.

After talks with Lippi and the club’s president, Liu Yongzhou, he agreed to remain at the club until the end of the season. He went on to assist Gao Lin’s injury-time winner against Liaoning Whowin, which won Guangzhou the 2012 CSL. In doing so, they became the first side to retain the title.

Following winning the FA Cup against Guizhou Matai, Conca made his intentions to move back to Fluminense clear by writing a letter to Yongzhou. However, his former club and Guangzhou failed to reach an agreement to see him return to Brazil, and he conceded to see out the remainder of his contract, which concluded at the end of the 2013 season. 

He scored 14 goals in 26 CSL appearances, in which Guangzhou secured a hat-trick of league titles. In the season’s edition of the Champions League, he scored six goals in five consecutive matches, including three in two legs against Kashiwa Reysol as Lippi’s side won 8-1 on aggregate to become the first Chinese side to reach the final since 1998.

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In the first leg of the final, against K League champions FC Seoul at the Seoul World Cup Stadium, Elkeson and Lin scored as the visitors secured a 2-2 draw. Before the second leg at the Tianhe Stadium, Guangzhou played their last league match of the season, a 5-0 home rout of Wuhan Zall. After Elkeson had put Guangzhou ahead after two minutes, Conca doubled their lead four minutes later. In celebration, he took off his shirt to show his vest, which had printed on it: “No matter where I am, you will always be in my mind. Thank you.”

His last game on home soil for Guangzhou was to be the Champions League final second leg against Seoul. He played the full 90 minutes as his side secured a 1-1 draw, which saw them crowned champions for the first time in the club’s history via the away goals rule.

Having agreed a deal to return to Fluminense upon the expiry of his contract – that was announced on the Maracanã’s screen after a 2-1 win against São Paulo – his last appearance came in the FA Cup final, which Guangzhou lost 3-2 on aggregate to Guizhou Moutai. The Chinese Football Association Footballer of the Year award for 2013 was a fitting adieu for a departing bellwether of the modern Asian game.

His second debut for Tricolor was a 3-2 defeat to Madureira in the Campeonato Carioca. In his first season back in Brazil, he played 59 matches in all competitions. However, the lure of China, in which he was regarded as a venerable leviathan by those who resided around the Pearl River, proved too great. 

In 2015, Sven-Göran Eriksson was aiming to replicate Guangzhou’s success with Shanghai SIPG. Having signed Davi from Guangzhou, Seoul’s Kim Ju-Young and offered Newcastle United’s Papiss Cissé a deal, he signed Conca as the adornment to his industrial midfield. He played 46 games over the course of the next two seasons, scoring 17 times, but he was powerless to stop his former side winning the league title for the fifth and sixth years in a row.

Despite not achieving tangible success in Shanghai or winning a senior cap for Argentina, his impact is lucid. He was as emblematic to Brazilian and Chinese football as his finishing was adroit, whilst ameliorating Asian football’s repute in the modern game. After departing SIPG, he enjoyed brief spells at Flamengo and Austin Bold before retiring aged 35. Few remain legendary figures as players in different continents, which serves as a confirmation of his métier.

By Ryan Plant @ryanplant1998

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