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Will Arab clubs be capable of matching Guangzhou’s dominance?

Ross Dunbar

Published: Updated:

Coached by World Cup-winning Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari, Guangzhou Evergrande secured their second Asian Champions League – the second club to do so behind Saudi Arabia's Al-Ittihad who won back-to-back prizes in 2004 and 2005.

Another Brazilian, Elkeson – a €5.7 million signing from Botafogo – scored the winner to hand the Chinese champions a 1-0 win over two legs against Al-Ahli from the United Arab Emirates. The 26-year-old skipped away from the pursuits of his marker inside the box, bending the ball into the corner with the outside of his boot.

Since replacing former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro, Scolari hasn't lost a match in charge of Guangzhou. "The winners are those that will not give up. My next target is the world club championship. Why not? I have a great team at a great club and great players –- I can realise this dream," Scolari told the AFP news agency.

Guangzhou head for Japan in the New Year when they will contest FIFA's Club World Cup alongside European champions Barcelona. Success on the park has been followed up by moves off it that has consolidated Guangzhou's financial dominance of Chinese football.

China's 'booming' football market

Under the stewardship of the Xu Jiayin and the Evergrande Real Estate Group, Guangzhou has recovered from a match-fixing scandal in 2009. Last year, Jiayin sold off around 40% of ownership rights to China's largest e-commerce firm Alibaba, owned by billionaire Jack Ma, for around $192m. What was even more notable about Ma's investment in the club was that he described it as a move in the 'entertainment' industry.

Contrary to conventional opinion, Guangzhou are the real deal in China. They play out to a packed home stadium every week and even had the honour hosting German champions Bayern Munich in the summer. Even the likes of Real Madrid want a piece of the piece, investing in a partnership which enables coaching and knowledge exchanging between the clubs.

At the beginning of November, Ma and Jiayin successfully listed Guangzhou Evergrande as the first Asian football club on the stock market. With the support of China's government who are actively encouraging wealthy benefactors to invest in football clubs, the club released 375 million shares on the New Third Board market.

"The listing will help boost sales and lay a solid foundation for development of young Chinese players," said Ke Peng, chairman of Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao at the launch of the club's shares.

Developing local Chinese talent is part of the plan. The Evergrande International Football School hosts around 2,300 students who train across 50 football pitches, with 30 more set to be built according to a report from the Financial Times. The plan is to have an all-or-majority Chinese side within six years.

Will the East be left behind?

Although East Asian clubs have popped up in semifinals and finals consistently, the quality gap between them and their Western counterparts is still substantial. Japan, China and South Korea have been the powerhouses of Asian football for the past decade, both at club level and internationally at major competitions.

Of course, Japan and Korea's hosting of the 2002 World Cup boosted the football economy in those nations and the ability to sell stars like Son Heung-Min and Shinji Kagawa to the world has captivated the home audience. But with one Asian Champions League winner in 10 years – the win for Qatari side Al-Sadd was in a penalty shootout – the East looks to be lagging behind.

High-spending on player wages isn't everything: East Asian clubs, especially in the Gulf, can attract players at the peak of their careers and hold on to them, like Omar Abdulrahman. But as infrastructure and coaching expertise races ahead in the West, the East finds itself mired in alleged corruption scandals with FIFA.

Perhaps something can be said too about the intangibles: the intensity of competition, for example. Leagues in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are regarded in Europe as retirement homes for players in the twilight of their careers, while China and Japan appears focused on recruiting elite players and coaches.

The J-League, for instance, has seen ferocious competition between well-run and strongly-supported clubs in recent seasons – four of the last six seasons have been decided on the last day of the campaign. With improving crowds and well-resourced clubs, China's Super League and Korea's K-League are striving to be as intense as major leagues in Europe.

But Europe similarly follows a path of globalization with the riches falling into the hands of just several 'super-clubs' across the continent, Asian football looks to be following suit. But whether that sparks the emergence of thriving domestic leagues or leaves developing football nations in the shadows remains to be seen.