Asia’s football crown is up for grabs – but it’s virtually only Brazilians that are giving both matches in the two-legged AFC Champions final their glory. The goalless draw on 7 November in the first leg between Al-Ahli Dubai FC from the United Arab Emirates and China’s serial league champions Guangzhou Evergrande FC Taobao saw big names meeting each other from a football nation that has basically nothing to do with the continent.
Everton Ribeiro, who twice won Brazil’s player of the season title when at Cruzeiro, and Lima dos Santos, who scored 70 goals in 144 games for Benfica are expected to lead the United Arab Emirates club, who are making their first ever appearance in the final, to the biggest success in its history. Trying to stop them in the away team was the former Tottenham star Paulinho, who was voted one of the top three players at the 2013 Confederations Cup, star forward Elkeson, who has scored 59 goals in 72 league games for Guangzhou and Ricardo Goulart, the league’s top-scorer in the current season with eight goals. They all however failed to find the back of the net in the final. The second and therefore deciding final leg will be played on 21 November.
Sitting on a throne above the stars on the pitch is however somebody else – Luiz Felipe Scolari. The World Cup winning coach only took over the job as head coach at the south China club from the Italian Fabio Cannavaro in June and has since gone 22 competitive games unbeaten. Over the first November weekend, Scolari guided the club to its fifth league title in succession with a 2-0 win at Beijing Guo'.
It was the first part of a promise that Scolari never gave but is one that one expects from a man with his reputation – namely the continuation of an unparalleled success story that began in Guangzhou when Italian Marcello Lippi was in charge and culminated in the Champions League win in 2013. Evergrande’s second attempt to secure the continental title should once and for all see in the beginning of a Chinese-dominated era in Asia.
“Forget the five championships. It’s now all about winning the Champions League,” said Scolari immediately after the triumph in his debut season in the Chinese Super League in an attempt to dampen the euphoria. He in particular praised and thanked his Chinese players to give them the feeling that they’re just as important as the Brazilian goal machines. In Asia too, long-term success only comes when everybody works together as a team – and the Chinese really do form the healthy core of the side.
Guangzhou has actually managed to not only offset coach Lippi’s departure but also a whole series of foreign stars. Integrating the new Brazilians into the existing set-up seemed to go so extremely smoothly. Financially the club has no end of funding. Club boss and real estate developer Xu Jiayin and his immensely wealthy sponsor, Jack Ma, the founder of the world’s biggest online trading platform, have explicitly set out to establish a top club with all the means they have. Even the change in coaches was taken in its stride by the team after Scolari’s predecessor Cannavaro came to an agreement with the club to end his contract prematurely. In Italy, the 2006 World Cup winner has been sentenced to imprisonment after being convicted of tax evasion
On Tuesday evening (3 November) the Guangzhou entourage set off for Dubai in two private jets owned by club boss Xu. Awaiting them there was a team that had qualified for the final by beating Al-Hilal in the last minute of a thrilling all-Arabian semifinal. Al-Ahli got off to a perfect start in the new league season on the Arabian Gulf – five matches, five wins. The regional association had specially rearranged two of Al-Ahli’s league games close to the two finals to guarantee the club had the best possible chance of preparing properly. For the Arabs, it is the first time they met Guangzhou in its history. One has a lot of respect for the opposition. “Evergrande is a real powerhouse in Asia. It’s something we have to be prepared for,” said coach Cosmin Olaroiu. In the second leg, he will be without Abdulaziz Haikal who was sent off in the dying minutes of the first final.
For the Romanian, the coaching duel with thegreat Scolari is a huge challenge. He himself is not an unknown having led Steaua Bucharest to the league championship title in his home country in 2006 and to the semifinal of the UEFA Europa League. Olaroiu has been coaching Arab teams since 2007 and has duly amassed eleven titles.
Several hundreds of millions of people watched the first leg at 7:45 local time (4.45 pm CET/11:45 pm Chinese time) on television. The majority were in China where an estimated 100 million were watching. The second leg in Guangzhou on 21 November will be even more eagerly awaited.