There has always been a tendency for world stars, when in the salad days of their careers, to decamp from the vigorous requirements of top-level football in Europe or South America and migrate to less stressful leagues where financial recompense more than makes up for any apparent loss of status. Journeys to play for clubs in the Middle East or even the USA weren’t unusual.
And it was perfectly understandable, of course. Across the last few yeas, though, one nation’s league has been bucking that trend, enticing more than decent players from both Europe and South America to look upon a move to a different culture in an entirely new light. Before recent changes in legislation forced the clubs to rethink, with a focus more on acquiring and developing domestic talent, Chinese Super League clubs were trawling the major leagues of the world, offering big money for big players, and many clubs were prepared to accept what they considered to be inflated offers.
Across a couple of years for example, Chelsea brought in fees of €28m and €60m for Ramires and Oscar, neither of whom were nailing down starting places with regularity at the time. Although both of these players joined Shanghai SIPG, the club leading the charge in China was, and remains, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao. They signed, amongst others, Jackson Martínez, Ricardo Goulart and Paulinho, who headed to Barcelona before going back to China in deals worth more than €70m.
Based in the city of Guangzhou, in the Guangdong province, Guangzhou Evergrande are now the dominant force in Chinese football having won the league title in seven successive seasons, losing out in 2018 as Shanghai SIPG won before claiming it back a year later.
Such prominence was not always apparent, however, and aside from investment in transfers, funding from the ownership of the club – 56.71 percent by Evergrande Real Estate Group and 37.81 percent by Alibaba Group – which has made them the most valuable team in the country according to Forbes magazine, has also helped to propel the South China Tigers to the forefront of Chinese football. Before the ownership by Evergrande, Guangzhou had a somewhat chequered history.
The club was formed in 1954 as Guangzhou FC, entering the league structure the following year. It was early years for the game in any structured format in China and as the league grew, their initial eighth-place finish meant a position in the second tier. Frustratingly, although they won the second division, they were denied promotion as the league went through a restructuring programme. They again won the title, though this time financial problems led the club into bankruptcy, and any thoughts of promotion were banished by the fall out.
It would be a further three years before a resurrected club could again seek a league position. Surprisingly, access to the top tier was granted. It would be a brief tenure, however, as the new club had nothing like the player strength of the old one and, despite struggling for a couple of seasons, in a prolonged fight against relegation, they eventually dropped into the second tier in 1963. They would remain there until political upheaval washed away football three years later as the Cultural Revolution took hold.
The hiatus brought about a change in approach, and when football was once again accepted by the country’s rulers, Guangzhou were absent from the reconstituted league. Concentrating instead on developing a youth team, the club would absent itself until 1980 when the players were deemed to be ready for the rigours of league football.
This time there was no quick way into the top league and Guangzhou were placed into the third tier, but as their development plan prospered, successive promotions followed. It was a time of yo-yoing for them as relegation followed promotion and promotion again. The last of these would result in the first step on the escalator that would ultimately lead to Guangzhou’s rise to prominence, as the local Guangzhou Pharmaceutical organisation agreed to sponsor the club with a $200,000 annual investment.
As with its growing financial and industrial sectors at the time, Chinese football was also booming. In 1992, the Chinese FA launched a reform of the game in the country to promote both professionalism and commercial awareness. In January 1993, Guangzhou was taken over by the Apollo Group, becoming the first joint-stock professional side in the country. When the restructuring was complete, they would take their place in the new C League, the top tier of Chinese football.
The Apollo Group’s investment allowed manager Zhou Sui’an to develop a competitive squad, and the club finished the 1994 season in second place after a successful time on the pitch, Hu Zhijun top scoring in the league. Another runners-up spot followed in 1995, but as was so often the case in the history of the club – and for some time in its future as well – when things seemed to be moving forward, a detour drives it off course. After the two successive second places, plus a Chinese FA Cup final, Sui’an left the club and so began a familiar slide. Successive seasons saw fifth and seventh-place finishes and a steady decline in fortunes.
The deterioration led to disquiet amongst the playing staff, and with a number of players exiting the club, surviving in the top league became a trial. Key players like Peng Weiguo and Hu Zhijun left in 1998 and the inevitable relegation followed. There was clearly something wrong at the club; as matters transpired, this wasn’t restricted to poor form on the pitch.
Investigations led to the discovery of links between a number of players and gambling syndicates keen to have an inside track on upcoming results in order to make a killing. The club was the fall guy as the bookies cleaned up. It wouldn’t be the last time that the malevolent tentacles of gambling and corruption would adversely affect Guangzhou.
Now placed in the second tier, Apollo signed a new deal with the club, targeted at extending the relationship for a further five years. It would not last that long. Despite hopes of a rapid return to the top flight, Guangzhou could only manage an eighth-place finish in the second division, and the following season showed no signs of improvement.
In fact, despite an apparent 20m yuan investment by Apollo, the decline continued. Relegation to the third tier looked an increasing possibility, and only a victory in the last round of games, when Guangzhou faced Beijing Kuanli, would save the club from the drop and the possibility of extinction. The club found a hero in Zeng Qinggao, whose last-minute goal to win the game kept ensured safety and brought fans onto the pitch at the end of the game, weeping in unison with staff and players.
Before the following season, a new Guangzhou was formed when the club merged with neighbouring Matsunichi, who had been relegated to the second tier the same season as Apollo Guangzhou had secured their place in the league. The new season would bring hope with significant investment from the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group and a fourth-place finish offering light at the end of the tunnel.
For a while, it even seemed that promotion to the top league could be achieved. Both second and third-placed clubs were embroiled in a match-fixing scandal and an unseemly political push followed to take advantage of the situation and leapfrog the troubled clubs into the highest tier. The enterprise floundered, however, and worse was to follow when Geely, concerned at how the adverse publicity was reflecting on their business, decided to withdraw their support.
It was a crossroads for the club. Having lost their sponsors in a less than dignified way, it was time to take stock and rebuild. In 2002, the Guangzhou Sports Bureau, who had passed on control of the club to Apollo, were back in control and they were renamed as Guangzhou Xiangxue to reflect the reported 8m yuan invested by the Xiangxue Pharmaceuticals Group. Concentrating on developing a crop of young players, as it had done previously, the club finished in 11th place in the second division. Despite the lowly position, the Xiangxue Group maintained their support and, 12 months later, a third-place in the league was achieved.
There was now a chance for the club to progress. A similar judgement was made by the Sunray Cave Group, who took 70 percent of their stock in 2004 with another accompanying name change. The new title of Guangzhou Sunray Cave Zhongyi Pharmaceutical Football Club was hardly the catchiest of tags, and would have tested the patience of any fan irresponsible enough to start of a chant with “Give me a G!”
A 6m yuan input from Sunray Cave helped to ease any embarrassment and, with a further 6.5m yuan arriving from Teemall Group and Guangzhou Urban Construction, the following year presented an opportunity to bring in some players to support the group that the club had been developed internally. Despite this apparent progress, promotion back to the top tier still escaped the club, despite losing to only four clubs in each of the next two seasons.
In 2006, Guangzhou Pharmaceuticals Group, who had invested in the club in the early 1990s, took a 90 percent holding. At first it brought little change, as promotion still eluded Guangzhou. A third-place finish was respectable but not good enough. In 2007, a key appointment was made as the former head coach of the Chinese Olympic team, Shen Xiangfu, was named manager of the club. A number of key players, including Xu Liang, Li Shuai and Jia Wenpeng, were added to the roster too. Performances, and more importantly, results improved. Guangzhou won the league to achieve promotion to the Chinese Super League.
It had been a long struggle. Agonisingly, just a few short seasons later, the longed-for promotion would be squandered, not by results on the pitch, but by nefarious activity off the field. Back in August 2006, Guangzhou had defeated Shanxi Luhu 5-1 in what at the time seemed a fairly run of the mill league encounter. An inquiry completed in 2010, however, proved it to be anything but.
Police investigations discovered that the club’s general manager had paid a figure reported to be 200,000 yuan to his opposite number to ensure victory for the club. If that had been the extent of the matter involving officials at Guangzhou, it may have been possible to isolate any recriminations as being the act of a rogue individual. Sadly, it also emerged that both of the club’s vice presidents were aware of the bribe and any possibility of the club escaping censure was extinguished. Those involved in the scandal were jailed and the club was relegated, taken over by the Chinese FA and put up for sale. In one of its darkest hours, however, came the light at the end of the tunnel.
Spring was in the air, not only with regards to the weather, but also for football club in Guangzhou, when on 1 March 2010, the Evergrande Group purchased control of the club for a fee of some 100m yuan. It was time for a rebirth. A new name, Guangzhou Evergrande, was adopted, reflecting the new owners, and a bright structure was put in place. Xu Jiayin, the head of the real estate group now in charge of the club, pledged investment for players, improvements to the coaching organisation, and a fresh hierarchy, reinvigorated and determined for success.
The Chinese national team’s star striker, Gao Lin, was signed from Shanghai Shenhua for a fee rumoured to be pushing towards 7m yuan and a new man was brought in to take charge of team affairs, with former Beijing Guoan manager, Lee Jang-Soo, replacing Peng Weiguo. Although big names in the Chinese game, they would be just the heralds of the signings to follow. National team captain Zheng Zhi was acquired, as was Sun Xhiang. On the last day of June, a breakthrough signing made headlines when the Brazilian Muriqui was purchased from Atlético Mineiro. The fee to acquire the striker’s services, some 23m yuan, was a record for a Chinese club. It was a statement signing.
Precisely four months later, a 3-1 victory over Hunan Billows confirmed Guangzhou Evergrande as champions with three rounds of matches still to play. Promotion back to the top league was the reward. Fans were returning to the ground to watch a team that suddenly looked like it had a bright future. Just how bright no-one was sure of, but it would be a dazzling story that exceeded the expectations of so many.
The 2011 season saw the arrival of two more South Americans, Argentine Dario Conca and Brazilian Cléo, and Guangzhou went on a run of 44 games unbeaten which, inevitably, led to the national title being secured for the first time in their turbulent history. The following season, the title was retained. It was the first time that any club had successfully defended the Super League. The Chinese FA Cup was added along with the Super Cup for a domestic treble and clean sweep of trophies. The season also saw the club step outside of the domestic arena to prove their worth continentally, defeating Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, champions of South Korea, 5–1 to win their first AFC Champions League match. It would not be the last game they would win in that tournament.
Other players arrived at the club, but perhaps the most significant new face was that of former Juventus and Italy boss, Marcello Lippi, who replaced Lee Jang-Soo. Guangzhou prospered in the Champions League, progressing to the quarter-final stage before succumbing 5-4 to Al-Ittihad. It was the farthest any Chinese club had gone for half-a-dozen years. The new record would not last long.
In 2013, Chinese goalkeeper Zeng Cheng and Brazilian Elkeson joined, and the club extended that title run to three by securing a record 77 points in the league. They also won the Champions League title; the first Chinese club to achieve such heights since the restructuring of the domestic league system. The final was a tense affair against FC Seoul. A 2-2 draw in Korea was followed by a 1-1 draw in Guangzhou, meaning the Chinese side won on away goals.
A fourth-place finish in the Club World Cup in the same year stamped their international credentials. Despite victory over African champions Al Ahly, Bayern Munich proved too powerful for them in the semi-finals, cantering to a 3-0 victory, and they lost out to South American champions Atlético Mineiro in the playoff for the bronze medal. Fourth place in the competition of the various regional champions was no mean feat, however. Guangzhou Evergrande was becoming a name known not only across Asia, but also in the wider world.
The club was now asserting itself financially and, in 2014, the Alibaba retail group became a shareholder by investing a reported 1.2bn yuan. A fourth league title was gained as Evergrande progressed to at least the quarter-finals of the Champions League for the third year in succession. Fabio Cannavaro was brought in to replace Lippi until Luiz Felipe Scolari took over as boss in June 2015.
The next step was for the club to go public and Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC made their initial Offering in 2015, being the first Asian club to do so. Another league title underscored their status as the top dogs in China. It was their fifth in a row and followed a run of 26 league games undefeated. If there had been any doubt of their ascendency, a second Champions League title was added when Al Ahli were beaten 1-0 in the final. It preceded another fourth-place finish in the 2015 Club World Cup.
Dominance continued as league titles were added in 2016, 2017 and 2019. For a competition where no club had ever defended the title successfully, the Super League now became the sole property of the country’s most successful and influential club.
In November 2017, Fabio Cannavaro returned to take over as coach, and with players now attracted from all corners of the footballing world, there’s no reason why they won’t continue to grow and extend their dominance. Inevitably, this won’t only include China, and perhaps not just regionally. With the financial power behind them, one wonders how long it will be before a Chinese club – and surely there’s every chance that it will be Guangzhou Evergrande, Chinese football’s red dragon – wins the Club World Cup and claims its place amongst the game’s true elites. For many, it’s the rightful next step.
By Gary Thacker @All_Blue_Daze