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. As mentioned though, the players enticed by such riches tended to be those with a mere few years left of their playing days, and willing to trade them in for a few petro-dollars, or just straightforward dollars.
Perfectly understandable of course. Across the last few yeas though, one country’s league has been bucking that trend, enticing more than decent player from both Europe and South America to look on a move to a different culture in an entirely different light. Before recent changes in legislation forced the clubs to rethink, with a focus more on acquiring and developing domestic, rather than imported talents, China’s 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 accepted fees of €28million and €60million first for Ramires and then Oscar, neither of which were nailing down starting eleven places with regularity at the time. Although both of these players joined other teams, the club leading the charge in China was, and remains Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao. The club signed, amongst others, Brazilians Jackson Martínez, Ricardo Goulart and Paulinho, who briefly returned to Barcelona before going back to China accounted for more than €70million.
Based in the city of Guangzhou, in the Guangdong province, Guangzhou Evergrande is now the dominant force in Chinese football having won the league title in seven successive seasons, only losing out in 2018 as Shanghai SIPG wrested the crown from them to break their stranglehold on the domestic game. The new season though will surely see a determined effort by the club to re-establish their pre-eminence and prove themselves once more to be China’s top club. Such prominence was not always however, and aside from investment in transfers, funding from the ownership of the club – 56.71% by Evergrande Real Estate Group and 37.81% by Alibaba Group – that 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 however, 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 though, 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, but 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, and 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 however as relegation followed promotion and promotion again. The last of these however 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 club in the country. When the restructuring was completed, they would take their place in the new C League, the top tier of Chinese club football.
The Apollo Group’s investment allowed manager Zhou Sui’an to develop a more competitive squad, and the club finished the 1994 season in second place after an encouragingly successful time on the pitch with Hu Zhijun being top goalscorer 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 swell, when things seemed to be moving forward, a detour drives it off course. After the two successive second places, plus a losing Chinese FA Cup Final, Zhou Sui’an left the club and things began an all too familiar slide. Successive seasons saw fifth and then seventh place finishes and a steady decline in fortunes.
The deterioration led to an understandable disquiet amongst the playing staff and with a number of players exiting the club, even surviving in the top league became a trial. Key players Peng Weiguo and Hu Zhijun left in 1998 and the inevitable relegation followed. There was clearly something not right at the club, and as matters transpired, this wasn’t restricted to mere 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 syndicates 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 20million 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 increasingly real possibility of extinction. The club found a hero in Zeng Qinggao, whose last-minute goal to win the game kept the club safe 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 Guangzhou Matsunichi who had been relegated to the second tier the same season as Apollo Guangzhou had secured their place in the division. The new season would bring hope with significant investment from the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group and a fourth-place finish offered hope of better things to come. For a while however, 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 top league. The enterprise foundered however, and worse was to follow when Geely, concerned at how the adverse publicity the whole unseemly scenario had caused was reflecting on their core business, decided to withdraw their support.
It was a crossroads time 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 the club was renamed as Guangzhou Xiangxue to reflect the reported 8million yuan invested by the Xiangxue Pharmaceuticals Group. Concentrating on developing a crop of young players as it had done previously, the club finished a creditable eleventh place in the second division, but despite the lowly position, the Xiangxue Group maintained their support and twelve months later, a third place in the league was achieved.
There was now a chance for the club to progress and a similar judgement was made by the Sunray Cave Group who took 70% of the club’s 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 6million yuan input from Sunray Cave helped to ease any embarrassment however and with a further 6.5million yuan arriving from Teemall Group and Guangzhou Urban Construction the following year there was 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 only four clubs in each of the next two seasons.
In 2006 though, Guangzhou Pharmaceuticals Group, who had invested in the club in the early 1990s took a 90% holding. At first it brought little change, as promotion still eluded Guangzhou. A third-place finish being respectable, but not good enough. In 2007 though, a key appointment was made as the former head coach of the Chinese Olympic team, Shen Xiangfu was named head coach of the club, and a number of key players, including Xu Liang, Li Shuai and Jia Wenpeng were added to the roster. Performances, and more importantly, results improved. Guangzhou won the league to achieve promotion to the Chinese Super League.
It had been a long struggle, but 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 200,00 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 acts of a ‘rogue’ acting without the club’s knowledge. It also emerged however that both of the club’s vice presidents, Wu Xiaodong and Xie Bin 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 the football club in Guangzhou, when on 1 March 2010, the Evergrande Group purchased control of it for a fee of some 100million yuan. It was a time for rebirth. A new name, Guangzhou Evergrande was adopted, reflecting the new owners, and a new structure was put in place. Xu Jiayin, the head of the real estate group now in charge of the club and pledged investment for players, improvements in the coaching organisation and a fresh hierarchy, purged of the recent scandal, 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 7million 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 Campeonato Brasileiro Série A side Atlético Mineiro. The fee required to acquire the striker’s services, some 23million yuan, was a record for a Chinese club. It was a statement signing for the club.
Precisely four months later, a 3-1 victory over Hunan Billows confirmed Guangzhou Evergrande as champions of League One 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, Argentinean 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 the club’s turbulent history, with four games left to play. The following season the title was retained. It was the first time that any club had successfully defended the Super League title. The Chinese FA Cup was added along with the Super Cup for a domestic treble and clean sweep of trophies. 2012 also saw the club step outside of the domestic arena to prove their worth in a wider field, defeating Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, champions of 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 Italian national team coach, Marcello Lippi, who replaced Lee Jang-Soo. Guangzhou prospered in the AFC Champions League, progressing to the quarter-final stage before succumbing in a narrow 5-4 aggregate loss to Al-Ittihad. It was the farthest any Chinese club had gone for half-a-dozen years. The new record would not last long however.
In 2013, Chinese goalkeeper Zeng Cheng and Brazilian Elkeson joined, and the club extended that title retention run to three by securing a record 77 points in the league. They also won the AFC Champions League title; the first Chinese club ever 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 Gouangzhou meaning the Chinese club won on away goals.
A fourth-place finish in the FIFA 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, 3-2 in the play-off for the bronze medal. Fourth place in the competition of the various regional champions was however no mean feat. Guangzhou Evergrande was becoming a name known not only across Asia, but also in the wider footballing world.
The club was now asserting itself financially, and in 2014, the Alibaba online retailing group became a shareholder by investing a reported 1.2billion yuan. A fourth league title was gained and Guangzhou Evergrande progressed to at least the quarter-finals of the AFC Champions League for the third year in succession. Fabio Cannavaro was brought in to replace Lippi until Luiz Felipe Scolari took over as coach in June 2015.
The next step was for the club to go public and Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC made their initial Public Offering in 2015, being the first Asian club to do so. Another league title underscored their status as the top club in China. It was their fifth in a row and followed a run of 26 league games undefeated, and if there had been any doubt of their ascendency, a second Asian Champions League title was added when Al Ahli were beaten 1-0 in the final. Another fourth place followed in the 2015 FIFA Club World Cup.
Dominance continued as league titles were added in 2016 and 2017. For a league where no club had ever defended the title successfully, the Chinese Super League now became the sole property of the country’s most successful and influential club, Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC.
In November 2017, Fabio Cannavaro returned to take over as coach and with players now attracted from all corners of the footballing world – Brazilian star Paulinho returned there after a brief season with Barcelona – there’s no reason to assume that the club will not continue to grow and extend its dominance. Inevitably, this will not only include China, and perhaps not only regionally. With the financial power behind it, one wonders how long it will be before a Chinese club – and surely there’s every chance that the club would be Guangzhou Evergrande, Chinese football’s rising dragon – wins the FIFA Club World Cup, and claims its place among the elite clubs of the world.
(This article was originally produced for the ‘These Football Times’ website).