Thu, 28 Oct, 2021
Captain for both club and country, Guangzhou Evergrande’s Zheng Zhi, is looking to continue China’s rise as a continental powerhouse in the game by leading his side to a second AFC Champions League title in three years when they face Al Ahli from the United Arab Emirates in the 2015 final.
Two years ago, the southern Chinese side ended the 23-year continental title drought that had dogged clubs from the Chinese Super League ever since Liaoning defeated Japan’s Nissan FC to win the 1990 Asian Club Championship.
And since Dalian Wanda were edged out by Pohang Steelers of Korea Republic on penalties in the 1998 edition, no side from China had even reached the continental showpiece, let alone won it, with teams from Japan, Korea Repubic, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates rising to the fore.
However, after Guangzhou’s relegation to the second tier and the purchase by the Evergrande group at the start of 2010, the club’s rise was meteoric.
Three successive Super League championships came before FIFA World Cup winning-coach Marcello Lippi guided Guangzhou to the their greatest triumph after lifting the 2013 AFC Champions League title with an away goals victory over Korea Repubic’s FC Seoul.
And it was former Charlton Athletic and Celtic midfielder Zheng, wearing the captain’s armband, who raised the trophy high into the sky on that balmy and historic November evening at Guangzhou’s Tianhe Sport Centre Stadium.
“Winning the 2013 AFC Champions League title was like a dream to us as all Chinese football fans were well aware that it had been 23 years since any of our clubs had won the continental title,” says Zheng.
“It was a historic moment when we won the title and we draw the attention of everyone. Not just throughout Asia, but in many places worldwide, in Europe and in South America, people know that in Asia, in China, there is a team called Guangzhou Evergrande.”
Not only an achievement for Zheng and his team-mates, the crowning of Guangzhou as continental champions in 2013 could be a sign of things to come for the entire nation.
“I think it had a very positive effect because our Chinese professional football league is moving in a stable direction and winning the AFC Champions League was an affirmation of the whole country’s effort in these last few years,” says Zheng.
“And I hope all Chinese football clubs, including our Guangzhou Evergrande, can keep going on the right track, buoyed by the success we showed Chinese teams can achieve playing in the AFC Champions League.
“Everybody hopes that the national team can be like Guangzhou Evergrande to be on the top of Asia, or qualify to the FIFA World Cup. As a player of Evergrande, and a player of our national team, I believe winning the AFC Champions League title can help all teams from China, and can enhance the confidence of every player from China, including our national team to play better in international games.
“For example, in the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, we qualified top of our group and made it to the quarter-finals – and I’m sure Guangzhou’s 2013 AFC Champions league winning spirit certainly helped this.”
Zheng has been a key feature of Guangzhou’s continental success this year, too, and the ever-present rock in midfield also netted a rare but vital goal in the semi-final first leg against Gamba Osaka that was key to their eventual 2-1 aggregate win.
“This is really a great chance for us to be the champion of Asia a second time. It would be a very significant achievement and everybody in China hopes we can win the AFC Champions League title once more,” says Zheng, who recently also helped Guangzhou win a fifth consecutive Super League crown.
“In our club’s new five-year scheme, we targeted winning the ACL title again as one of our goals. Everybody has great expectations for us, and we don’t want to let them down.
“We hope to be the champion of the AFC Champions League this season, and to increase confidence in Chinese football, and to bring more happiness to Chinese fans.”