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Evergrande rekindles enthusiasm for soccer

Updated: 2013-12-19 08:26
By Sun Xiaochen ( China Daily)

Zhang Meng washed his tea set, prepared snacks and set the alarm clock to 3 am before taking a nap on Tuesday night, following his routine for watching live European soccer games in other world time zones on many early mornings.

But this was the first time he did it for a match involving a club from his own country.

Ratcheting up the anticipation even more, the Chinese team, Guangzhou Evergrande, was about to challenge one of the world's best - German powerhouse Bayern Munich - in the FIFA Club World Cup semifinals.

Zhang and countless die-hard Chinese soccer fans finally had something to cheer about on the game's prestigious stage.

"We have waited so long for Chinese soccer's appearance in the central spotlight of the world since the 2002 World Cup, and this game offered a rare chance for Chinese fans to feel proud," said Zhang, a local TV station employee from Henan province.

Despite being overwhelmed on the field by Bayern, Evergrande's challenge has rekindled the country's passion for the once-scandal-plagued game.

Dogged by the national squad's poor international performance, as well as corruption that saw former soccer chiefs Nan Yong and Xie Yalong jailed for match-fixing, the game in China has been far from beautiful.

Yet fans like Zhang, who has followed Chinese soccer for years but rarely had reason to celebrate, couldn't be happier as they have watched the rise of Evergrande, which qualified for the intercontinental event after winning the AFC Champions League in November.

In a poll on, more than 56 percent (12,502) of the respondents said the 3-0 loss was the "best result" Evergrande could have hoped for in facing the five-time UEFA champion Bayern, and more than 57 percent agreed that the team's performance was "acceptable".

"To watch a professional club from China challenging the world's best team is great consolation for all Chinese fans," Wang Wen, chairman of the Beijing Football Fan Club, said on Wednesday. "After all, they have experienced so many unpleasant memories. It's time for us to cheer up."

Originally created to root for Evergrande's local rival, Beijing Guo'an, Wang's fan club has organized match-watching parties for the Guangdong club. He attracted about 200 Beijing fans to cheer at Sanlitun.

"No matter where the club is from, it represents China internationally," Wang said. "The national team has disappointed fans for a long time, and Evergrande has made it up."

Although soccer is one of the most popular sports in China - President Xi Jinping is said to be a big fan - the Chinese national team hasn't delivered inspiring results in recent years, finishing short at the 2011 Asian Cup and failing to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics and 2014 World Cup.

The big-spending Evergrande, which is funded by real estate tycoon Xu Jiayin, lifted the game's profile by winning the AFC Champions League over South Korean champion FC Seoul on Nov 9. It's the first time a Chinese team claimed the continental trophy since Liaoning did it in 1990.

Fans would like to see other Chinese Super League clubs follow Evergrande's lead to boost the development of professional Chinese soccer leagues.

Yet experts remain cautious, stressing that money might lure high-level foreign players but won't help mend China's weak grassroots foundation.

"Professional soccer is not about investing money to reap quick results," said Jin Can, director of Beijing Academy of Social Sciences' sports culture research center.

Philippe Troussier, the former coach of the Japanese national team who worked with Shenzhen Ruby over the past three years in China's second-tier league, said Chinese soccer is still a student on a professional stage.

"Professionalization means everything, including reserve team building, talent scouting and financial operations - far more than a victory in the AFC Champions League," Troussier told Xinhua News Agency.