Most articles on Chinese football revolve around the question that asks why the country is not a global player, and when all that is going to change.
Surely, the logic goes, in a nation of 1.3 billion, there should be 11 world-class players.
It has yet to happen. China qualified for a first World Cup in 2002 and didn’t win or even score a goal, and has not come close to returning to the stage since.
The national team has been pushed aside now. There is a club making waves, but that does not mean that it is necessarily a good thing for China. The country has been waiting for a strong team to challenge in Asia but the problem is that Guangzhou Evergrande are perhaps a little too strong.
The (Chinese) game still has to develop in a more long-term way. There needs to be patience and an understanding that China needs a long time to have a high football standard.
The Reds are 90 minutes away from becoming only the second team from the Middle Kingdom to become the champions of Asia, 23 years after Liaoning were kings of the continent.
Marcello Lippi’s men drew 2-2 at FC Seoul in the first leg of the Asian Champions League on October 27. They are expected to do the business in the second leg in front of 50,000 fans at their own Tianhe Stadium on Saturday.
Evergrande, a large real estate company, took over in 2010 and then invested more than $70 million on hiring the 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, three very talented South American imports in Dario Conca, Muriqui and Elkesen, and much of the Chinese national team.
It is not surprising then that under the solid stewardship of coach Lee Jang-soo and then, from May 2012, Lippi, that Guangzhou has become the team to beat in Asia.
Headlines of continental glory will come their way if they can defeat Seoul, as will a prized ticket to the FIFA Club World Cup in December.
The whole of China – well, almost all – is behind Guangzhou against the Korean team, and will offer the same support in Morocco in the following month.
Less noticed overseas and perhaps less welcome at home was the fact that Guangzhou strolled to a third consecutive Chinese Super League title in October.
And this was the easiest one. The Reds sealed the domestic deal with six games to go in a 30-game season. And this was at a time when they were tearing their way through the Asian Champions League.
Few teams in Asia manage to combine domestic and continental success. While Guangzhou may bring glory to Chinese football on foreign shores, it is looking a little too dominant at home.
Cameron Wilson, founding editor of leading Chinese football website Wild East Football, argues that Guangzhou’s strength is a double-edged sword.
“One team dominating a league is always a bad thing particularly for the Chinese Super League, because previously one of its key strengths was its competitiveness – a different team won it every year until Evergrande came along,” Wilson told Al Jazeera.
“It’s up to other clubs to catch up and so far that hasn’t happened, and it does not look like happening for the foreseeable future.”
Guangzhou have led the way in signing a better standard of foreign players and others have fallen into line but are not willing, or able, says Wilson, to follow completely in those footsteps.
“It’s clear Evergrande, the real estate group, lose an awful lot of money on the team, so other clubs don’t want to splash out and finish second.”
The team’s dominance comes as a contrast to Japan, a country that, in football terms, China is increasingly trying to emulate. The J-League is famously open and competitive and former Japan coach Philippe Troussier, now coaching in China, believes that this is the model to follow.
“Chinese football looks so attractive with so many talented foreign players and coaches coming into the game and helping a team like Guangzhou strengthen very quickly,” said the Frenchman.
“But the game still has to develop in a more long-term way. There needs to be patience and an understanding that China needs a long time to have a high football standard.”
In the short term, however, Wilson believes that fans are just hungry for continental success and global attention.
“If they win the Asian Champions League, the badly wounded ego of Chinese football as a whole will receive a significant boost.
“China always feels it has a point to prove in all spheres of international relations. Guangzhou’s dominance will be accepted by most in China as the price to pay for delivering some prestige to the nation.”