Shanghai. China’s serial champions Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao FC is also en route to fame and titles under the Brazilian flag. The Cantonese club already has one foot in the semifinal of the Asian Champions League and has made a big step towards winning it fifth Chinese league championship title since 2011. It seems highly probable that they, with Brazil’s former national coach Luiz Felipe Scolari in the dugout, will follow on from the club’s recent successful Italian-influenced era. In view of the turbulent events over the past ten months, it was not something people were expecting.
First World Cup winning coach Marcello Lippi surprisingly announced that he would be standing down at the end of the league season in November 2014. He had guided the club to its most successful years ever which were crowned by the Asian Champions League win in 2013.
Then followed the equally surprising departure of Lippi’s successor Fabio Cannavaro, who under Lippi was a World Cup winner in 2006. It is said they parted on good terms and there is no reason to doubt it. Things were going well enough on the pitch but Cannavaro had a ten-month prison sentence for tax evasion hanging over his head, He intends appealing and the sentence is currently suspended.
Convicted in the same proceedings, his brother on the other hand has already gone to prison. It is not certain whether the legal issues had anything to do with his departure or not.
One thing is clear – the club was prepared for the day. No sooner had Cannavaro's resignation been made public and the club were presenting Scolari as the successor. Negotiations had been going on for a while. Chinese media reported that Guangzhou saw in Scolari the better alternative to bring out the best in the Brazilian stars in the team. The Italian times in the club really were now a thing of the past. Even before Lippi stepped down in 2014, the Italian international player Alberto Gilardino and Alessandro Diamanti, who had also played for Italy, had already returned to Europe. Both had earned a lot of money but had not met the big expectations on the pitch.
At the end of June, Guangzhou announced the signing of the Brazilian international Paulinho from Tottenham Hotspur for 14 million euro. He is the sixth Brazilian at Evergrande, and the fourth to be brought in this year. Right away on his debut in the Champions League at the end of August, he scored with a spectacular free kick from 30 metres to put his team 2-0 up in Japan against Kashiwa Reysol. The Chinese side eventually ran out 3-1 winners to leave them in an excellent position for the second leg this Tuesday in Guangzhou. A 1-1 draw has put Evergrande in the semifinals.
Should they knock out Gamba Osaka, another Japanese team, then the Samba feeling would be even more intense in the southern Chinese club. Last year they exited in the quarterfinals against the eventual winners from Sydney. It is hoped Scolari will repeat the triumph of 2013. “It’s thrilling being a part of such an important competition. After the first few months of being in charge here and getting to know the players and club officials, I’m confident we can go a long way,” said Scolari.
The general good spirits have also been improved by the fact that Evergrande is once again heading the Chinese Super League (CLS). A 3-0 win in the big game against SIPG Shanghai enabled them to leapfrog their closest rivals. With three games to go, they are two points ahead of second-placed SIPG who are coached by the Swede Sven-Göran Eriksson.
The duel between SIPG and Evergrande is also a duel between the two financially strongest sponsors in Chinese football. Guangzhou has in the IT group Alibaba behind it. After the most successful stock market flotation of all time last year, the company is not short of a penny or two and is looking to improve their international image via sport. SIPG is backed by the operators of the Shanghai container port. The club signed the Argentine international Dario Conca from Fluminense. Conca had previously played in Guangzhou, where he won the Champions League and where he, thanks to the millions from Alibaba, became the best paid footballer on the planet after Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.