Guangzhou Evergrande lost the Club World Cup semifinal against Barcelona, but gained something far more important: credibility for Chinese and Asian football in general.
Before the game, in Spain, little was expected from Luiz Felipe Scolari’s boys. In general, when Barcelona or Real Madrid face teams from Asia they are viewed with a mixture of curiosity and unimportance, the kind of sides that the European giants brush aside in their expensive, publicity-seeking tours before the start of the league. Those tours that supporters hate, in which the main priority is money, not getting a good challenge. Anything other than a blowout win against them is considered a bad result.
With Evergrande the perception was no different. It’s true that they were the champions of Asia, and that the names of Scolari, Robinho and Paulinho gave some credibility to the Chinese team, but for fans of Barcelona, they were simply another obstacle to overcome. One that they didn’t even expect to face, as Jordi Alba avowed just a few days before the game, "we thought we would play against America of Mexico", he said.
However, the Tigers came out ready to prove they could be worthwhile rivals for Barcelona, and they succeeded. During the first 40 minutes of the game they played as equals to the European champions. It could even be said that they generated more scoring chances than their illustrious opponents.
The social networks in Spain were exploding with expressions of surprise, some protesting about the performance of the European Champions, but others acknowledging the good work of the boys from Guangzhou. True, Lionel Messi and Neymar were not on the pitch, but when you face players like Claudio Bravo, Andres Iniesta and Luis Suarez, playing without complexes has much merit.
In the end, however, those players made the difference and showed the main reason why Asian football is still light-years away from European football. Suarez scored a hat trick, but the first of his goals came after an almost beginner mistake by goalkeeper Li Shuai’, one that you almost never see in the Spanish League. A couple of minutes later, Bravo made a sensational save after a header by Paulinho, preserving the Catalan lead.
Evergrande has two very good players in Paulinho and Rafael Goulart, able to make a difference against any opponent on their continent. But to compete against the best of the best they should have at least five or six world class players plus a high quality base. And, being totally honest, if you analyse the squad of the Asian Champions only the two aforementioned Brazilians, and perhaps Zhang Limpeng would be able to sit on the bench for Barcelona, not to talk about starting a game.
That does not mean, however, that the Tigers are not on the right track. Just five years ago, the only news from Europe regarding the Chinese football were related to blatant corruption. The image people had of the Chinese Super League was the worst possible, controlled by gamblers with games played on empty stadiums, directed by corrupt officials and played by footballers willing to throw matches for only a handful of euros.
The performances on the pitch in general didn’t fare much better. Asian teams were an unmitigated catastrophe in the World Cup a year ago. Not even one of them made it to the second round, combining for 0 wins, 3 draws and 9 defeats, and China didn’t even make it to Brazil!
Thus, seeing a Chinese team in the semifinals of the Club World Cup after beating a Mexican side is nothing short of a miracle. Even more so, one that was able to stand up for 40 minutes to no other side than Barcelona, perhaps the best club in history, with the added merit of doing it with a starting lineup that included seven local players (eight Asian, including Korean Kim Younggwon), not with the usual template of foreign mercenaries.
Of course when you see the spectacular second goal for Barcelona you understand that the road ahead is still very long. That incredible Iniesta pass over the head of the defenders, the Luis Suarez control with his chest and subsequent volleyed finishing with his right leg are almost otherworldly, and the track to follow for any team who wants, in the future, to aspire to become one of the best in the world.
Nevertheless, the Chinese powerhouse seems to be taking the right steps. To buy good, quality foreign stars and complement them with a good local base is the formula that has brought success to countless clubs in the history of the game, the brightest of them none other than Barcelona.
Of course, the Catalans have been doing it for decades, so the Tigers won’t be able to produce La Masía starlets or buy Luis Suárez next week, and we won’t see them beating Barcelona in the next edition of the Club World Cup, but it should not surprise anyone if, in future editions of the tournament, the major European sides and their fans start mentioning the name Guangzhou Evergrande not with curiousity but with respect.