Guangzhou, CHINA – The world's most populous nation celebrated a breakthrough victory Saturday night in the world's most popular sport. Guangzhou Evergrande defeated FC Seoul from South Korea to become China's first ever winner of the AFC Champions League, Asia's foremost club soccer competition.
Bursting with relief and patriotism, over 40,000 fans in the Tianhe Stadium, in the south China metropolis of Guangzhou, formed a roaring red sea of team shirts, Chinese national flags and face stickers, all in China's lucky red color.
Some fans even dared to hope the result will kick-start improvements at the national team level, where China has long disappointed the many millions of citizens for whom success in soccer matters more than any Olympic triumph.
But grassroots coaches warned that without changes to China's educational and sporting systems, to develop a genuine sports culture here and get more kids playing soccer, years more heartbreak lie ahead for those following Team China.
Backed by a real estate giant, Guangzhou Evergrande, a private soccer club in the city also known as Canton, has spent big in recent years to hire players from South America, and top Italian coach Marcello Lippi. These expensive imports, dubbed the "Three Amigos" delivered Saturday in the second leg of the final when they drew 1-1 with FC Seoul in the second leg on to take the title on away goals after a 3-3 aggregate tie.
Belting out a patriotic song that rang around the packed stadium, salesman Chen Jing savored the rare taste of victory. "We have waited so long, and often felt hopeless, but now Evergrande have won glory for Chinese football," said Chen 29, who traveled from southwest Chengdu city for the game.
"The victory will give more confidence to our national team and show Chinese parents that (soccer) is also a good route for their children," he said. In ten years, China can produce a player like Lionel Messi, widely considered the world's best, and will reach the World Cup Finals again, Chen confidently predicted.
China's sole World Cup appearance was aided by the fact that 2002 co-hosts Japan and South Korea, China's major rivals in East Asia, did not need to compete in regional qualifying games.
"The national league will get better and better as the other top six teams will now keep investing and get more top players," said sports marketing executive Kevin Ding.
Liu Lifen, an executive at the Yida Soccer Base, a coaching academy in Guangzhou's southeast suburbs, was more cautious. "Evergrande reaching the final gives a dream to Chinese kids, but practical steps by government are necessary to capitalize on their success," she said.
Buying expensive foreign players does not tackle China's fundamental problems such as the need for educational reforms that allow kids more time for sports and more places to play them, said Liu. Few children play soccer in China, which translates into limited resources for the national team, she said.
Several soccer academies in Guangzhou have gone bust in recent years.
"China is a strong Olympic country but not a strong sports country, as few people play sports here" said Liu. Parents and schoolmasters often discourage sports for fear of injury and the academic pressure to pass the all-important college entrance exam, she said. "Chinese people still think 'if a kid plays soccer, then it's definitely because his studies are bad'."
At the Qingsheng Elementary School, coach P.K. Tresser, 26, put 18 kids through their paces Saturday morning.
"China could become a football power, they have the talent and these kids train well," he said. "But I see some Chinese people don't feel (soccer) is good for their kids, so it takes a long time to change," said Tresser.
Some trainees live full time at the Yida academy, including schoolgirl Chen Chongyi, 11, who has already spent three years there. Chen misses her parents but loves soccer and dreams of being a forward for the national women's team, she said.
Back at the stadium, enjoying the post-victory concert and celebrations, Dr. Zhou Chaoyang, 44, praised Evergrande for playing soccer of a quality still far beyond the national team's ability.
Online, fans adapted a stock phrase of China's ruling Communist Party. Instead of 'only socialism can save China', some posted 'only real estate can save China'.