Guangzhou lead the Chinese charge
Forget Shanghai Shenhua and Nicolas Anelka, champions Guangzhou Evergrande are the real movers and shakers in Chinese football. This week, they not only kick off their defence of the domestic title but also start their first ever assault on the Asian Champions League. What they lack in experience they make up for in ambition and Guangzhou intend to show South Korea and Japan, and in doing so the rest of the continent, that Chinese football has finally arrived - at club level at least. The national team can come later.
To succeed in Asia, you are going to have to beat Korean and Japanese opposition and that is something that China is usually unable to do. The Middle Kingdom is, rightly, starting to look to Japan when it comes to building a youth system and organising a league. Beating the Samurai Blue is sweet for political and historical reasons but in terms of football, beating Koreans is still what the fans want.
It is always a question when the Seoul media interviews a person associated with Chinese football and the Beijing media gets its hands on a Korean representative. "Can Chinese football ever overtake South Korea?" Not long ago, there would have been laughs either side of the Yellow Sea - those on the western edge cynical, those on the east genuinely amused - but not anymore.
They call it 'Koreaphobia' in the Chinese media, an inability to beat, and even the fear of playing their neighbours at football. Inevitably, it was a term taken up with glee by reporters in the Land of the Morning Calm. Actually, it was coined in relation to the national team. Game after game came and went, the years and decades passed and still China had never beaten their rivals.
The win came at the 28th attempt in February 2010 - a spanking 3-0 victory over the stunned Koreans in Tokyo that sparked euphoric headlines in the world's most populous country. While the loss did not go down well in Seoul, some were relieved to see the record broken; the mantle had become a burden. Still, old habits die hard and in that year's Asian Champions League, K-League teams won all nine of their games against Chinese opposition.
China watched that summer as their two neighours went to the second round of the World Cup in South Africa. The Chinese national team has already been eliminated from the 2014 tournament. In club football however, money can make a much quicker difference. Chinese fans have turned out in much greater numbers in the Asian Champions League than their Japanese and Korean counterparts, desperate to see some success against their rivals. Now they have a team that can challenge.
Guangzhou are the standard bearers for the new-look Chinese football scene at home and overseas. The team, from the city formerly known as Canton, started the spending spree in the country and are showing little signs of stopping. They have already gone from the second division to the Chinese title in successive seasons. Now, with a squad jam-packed full of domestic internationals and highly-paid foreign stars (Dario Conca from Argentina is reportedly among the top five top earners in the world), they have eyes on the Asian Champions League that starts this week.
In public the club talk of being happy with a place in the last eight - it is 2006 since China got that far - but in private a first continental trophy for the country since 1990 is mentioned in whispers. Guangzhou have never played in the tournament before but have a baptism of fire and an early look at how they measure up against Koreans when they travel to Jeonbuk Motors for Wednesday's opener. The K-League champions have played more games in the Asian Champions League than any other, winning the 2006 title and finishing as runners-up last November.
If anyone can engineer a win, it is Guangzhou's head coach Lee Jang-soo. The gruff Korean is a bigger name in China than in his homeland and if he is worried about rumours of being replaced by Marcello Lippi he is not the kind to show it.
"It's true that we have spent a lot of money," said Lee. "We decided to build a team quickly." The coach estimated that the club has splashed out over £32 million, huge in Asian terms, so far and there is more to come. "A lot of high-profile Chinese companies have been getting involved in football in terms of either owning clubs or sponsoring them. There is another team in Guangzhou now who were promoted. Guangzhou R &F and they are owned by a rival company. I can feel that Chinese football is coming back to life."
It certainly is and the second Guangzhou team showed recently just how the balance is shifting in East Asia by making a bid just short of £3.2 million for the 2011 K-League top scorer Dejan Damjanovic. His club FC Seoul refused the offer but the Montenegrin hotshot, faced with the prospect of doubling his salary, wants to go and is unsettled enough to have been substituted after 22 minutes of the opening K-League game of the season and publicly blasted by the manager. It is not only top players that are being tempted. Japan's 2010 World Cup coach Takeshi Okada turned down high-profile J-League jobs to take over Hangzhou Greentown.
It all points to the most eagerly awaited Chinese Super League season in history and it kicks off this weekend. Shanghai Shenhua are currently the hottest story in Asian football, Beijing Guoan and Tianjin Teda are not making the headlines as they used to but are still well-supported and well-financed clubs looking for success at home and overseas.
The rise of China has been predicted for years and in club terms, Japan and South Korea are still deciding how to deal with the fact that is has finally arrived. The Koreans worry about being caught in the middle of two bigger and richer leagues, while the Japanese are concerned that just as they are starting to explore deals with other Asian nations to try and make the J-League the continent's representative domestic tournament, attention has suddenly switched elsewhere. It is highly probable that the Chinese Super League will be the most watched in Asia in 2012 with an average attendance of over 20,000 expected.
There are opportunities however. A powerful China could make East Asia a powerful football bloc, one that contains three of the 12 biggest economies in the world, over 20% of the planet's population and a ever-growing pool of talent and fans. China's rise doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.
At the moment however, it is rightly about regional rivalries and bragging rights. Guangzhou coach Lee has a warning for Korea.
"It's a fact that Chinese football is still behind and people involved in the game in China would agree with that. But Korea can't relax. China is working very hard to catch up with Korean football. This a country with latent power and if Korea isn't aware of what is happening, then it can be overtaken."