'China's Real Madrid' set sights on global market

Beijing (AFP) - Six league titles in a row and two Asian trophies along the way could be just the start for China's Guangzhou Evergrande, who have drawn comparisons with Real Madrid and Manchester United and are eyeing global recognition.

The team from the southern metropolis of Guangzhou have risen from obscurity and corruption to break new ground for Asian football, becoming China's first AFC Champions League winners in 2013.

That victory earned the sobriquet "Asia's first superclub" as Evergrande's spending power and heavily South American squad, then marshalled by World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, put rivals in the shade.

Another World Cup-winner, Brazil's Luiz Felipe Scolari, joined in 2015 and duly helped them to their second Champions League trophy, plus a fifth straight league title last year before clinching the sixth on Sunday.

With the Chinese Super League firmly conquered -- despite rising competition from other big-spending clubs -- and their reputation well established in Asia, Evergrande can target loftier goals.

After Evergrande outlined plans to become one of the world's top clubs, analysts say they may soon be touring Europe -- turning the tables on the current situation, where European clubs visit Asia looking to extend their fanbase.

"At this rate it would not be inconceivable for Chinese clubs to be touring Europe in the next decade," Jon Stainer, Nielsen Sport's managing director for the United Kingdom and Ireland, told AFP.

- 'Be the best forever' -

Evergrande are a lesson in what can be achieved with money and determination as just three years before their first Asian title, they were demoted in disgrace from the Super League during a wide-ranging corruption crackdown.

The club was snapped up by Evergrande Real Estate Group, which had become a multi-billion dollar enterprise in China's property boom, and immediately won promotion back to the Super League. They have been national champions every year since.

"Six in a row is special for any club," Gary White, head coach of second-tier Shanghai Shenxin, told AFP.

"Guangzhou's motto is 'Be the Best Forever' and they have the resources both financially and emotionally from their stakeholders to become a global brand."

In August, Forbes valued Guangzhou at $282 million, a figure comparable to many top clubs in Europe -- some of which are now being snapped up by Chinese investors.

Shopping empire Suning, owner of Jiangsu, Guangzhou's closest Super League challenger this year, paid around $310 million for a 70 percent stake in Inter Milan in June.

In March, China's official Xinhua news agency even rated Evergrande as the world's richest club, based on a transaction of the club's shares which implied a market capitalisation of $3.35 billion, a shade higher than Real Madrid and Manchester United.

The ingredients are in place for further success on the pitch: Scolari extended his contract this week and the squad includes Colombian striker Jackson Martinez, Brazilian talents Paulinho and Ricardo Goulart and a number of Chinese internationals.

Evergrande, as well as their wealthy owners, also boast an average attendance of around 45,000 at their Tianhe stadium which is in the midst of the Pearl River Delta, the world's largest and most populous urban area.

- First-mover advantage -

Guangzhou were the first of China's big spenders, reportedly making Argentina's Dario Conca one of the world's best paid players when they signed him in 2011.

They have been followed by clubs like Jiangsu, Shanghai SIPG and Hebei China Fortune who, encouraged by President Xi Jinping's drive to make Chinese football great, splashed out $400 million on players this year.

Now, with the Chinese Super League broadcast in more than 50 countries, including Britain, there is a growing awareness of Chinese teams in Europe and elsewhere.

This is especially true of Guangzhou with its stable of stars, titles and, according to Simon Chadwick, professor of sports business at Britain's Salford University, "first-mover advantage".

"Guangzhou are in some ways the Real Madrid of Chinese football," said Chadwick. "High value, high profile player signings have become part of the club's brand narrative.

"To engage with fans around the world, one element a football club brand must have is a record of sustained success. Guangzhou are now building this record and so have the potential to become, in branding terms, globally recognised."

One element, however, has been glaringly absent so far: world-class football.

While Evergrande are pre-eminent in China, their two visits to the Club World Cup both ended in fourth-place finishes, with 3-0 defeats to Bayern Munich and Barcelona along the way.

It doesn't mean that better days aren't ahead for Evergrande, and their brand, owing to the sheer weight of investment if nothing else.

"The level of investment combined with the desire from China to see themselves as a key player in world football is something the industry should certainly take note of and prepare for," said Stainer.

"There is no doubt that the economy of the wider football industry is shifting."

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