Chinese football fans at last have something to cheer about
ALTHOUGH they excel at gymnastics and table tennis, the sport many Chinese really want to win at is football.
And yet, mired in match-fixing scandals and with little infrastructure to encourage schoolchildren, football has struggled.
In November, though, Guangzhou Evergrande beat FC Seoul to become the first Chinese team to win the Asian Champions League.
Could its success have a broader impact?
The team, previously known as Guangzhou Pharmaceutical, had been relegated to the second division because of match-fixing before it was acquired in 2010 by the Evergrande Real Estate Group.
Since then, it has won the Super League, China's equivalent of England's Premier League, three times.
On December 7th it narrowly failed to clinch the treble, beaten in the final of the Chinese FA Cup.
A revolutionary slogan has been reworked on the internet to celebrate the team's success: only real estate can save China.
The team's route to the top would be familiar to English fans.
Evergrande, headed by Xu Jiayin, a billionaire member of the Communist Party, paid $15m for the club.
In 2012, it hired Marcello Lippi, a World Cup-winning Italian coach, for 16m a year.
The club also procured three South American stars and many Chinese national-team members.
Rowan Simons, chairman of China ClubFootball, which promotes the game, says this is just the start of such big spending.
Evergrande's model may not boost the sport at lower levels, however. Relatively few young people play organised football because of lack of facilities and encouragement.
Parents prefer academic success to wasting time on sport.
The recent visit of Britain's prime minister, David Cameron, brought some assistance.
The English Premier League agreed to support a coaching programme that aims to reach more than 1.2m Chinese students by 2016.
The initiatives are a good start, says Mr Simons, but a stricter line on match-fixing and more grassroots support will be needed before Chinese football can become world class.