Marcello Lippi’s Guangzhou Evergrande have put Chinese soccer back on the map, but off-field scandals remain a big problem for the game, with match-fixing syndicates proving tough to crack.
Guangzhou ended China’s long wait for an Asian title in style when they swept through the Asian Football Confederation Champions League’s closing stages, before edging a tight, two-legged final against Seoul.
On the way to the final victory were 6-1 and 8-1 aggregate wins in the quarters and semi-finals, as well as 13 goals for the tournament’s top scorer, Muriqui, who forms part of Guangzhou’s deadly South American attack along with Dario Conca and Elkeson.
Guangzhou’s skill level and sheer entertainment value took the competition to a new level and finally gave Chinese fans a reason to celebrate after years of corruption and disappointment.
The team encapsulate Chinese soccer’s recent history after they were relegated over a match-fixing scandal, before returning to win three consecutive Chinese Super League titles, as well as the country’s first Asian trophy in 23 years.
Their challenge next year will be absorbing the loss of Conca — the hub of their attack — who is returning to Brazilian side Fluminense despite becoming one of the world’s best-paid players when he arrived in China in 2011.
Lippi is also entering the last year of his contract and there is speculation that he could be recruited to lead China’s stuttering national team.
Elsewhere in Asia, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Iran all qualified for next year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil, while Jordan and New Zealand missed out when they were hammered by Uruguay and Mexico respectively in the playoffs.
Asian champions Japan, who have Manchester United’s Shinji Kagawa and AC Milan recruit Keisuke Honda in their arsenal, were buoyed when they drew against the Netherlands and beat Belgium 3-2 in friendlies last month.
Off the field, the Asian Football Confederation formally cut ties with former president Mohamed bin Hammam, who is under investigation for alleged corruption, by choosing his replacement.
Bahraini royal Sheikh Salman bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa won a landslide election to replace Hammam in May after shrugging off allegations of vote-buying and even rights abuses related to his country’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.
Former Sri Lankan soccer chief Manilal Fernando, a Hammam ally, received a life ban from soccer by the sport’s governing body FIFA for alleged corruption. He has promised to appeal.
The stain of match-fixing is proving hard to remove despite a crackdown in Singapore, where shadowy syndicates were linked to hundreds of rigged games worldwide.
Singaporean businessman Dan Tan, or Tan Seet Eng, was one of four suspects locked up in September under a law which allows indefinite detention without charge. Police said witnesses were reluctant to give evidence, fearing reprisals.
Despite the arrests, new match-fixing scandals surfaced in Australia and England, with the name of convicted Singaporean fixer Wilson Raj Perumal — a purported ex-associate of Dan Tan’s — mentioned in both cases.