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Chinese fans dare to dream big but come up short in Morocco

By Euan McKirdy, CNN
updated 9:43 PM EST, Tue December 17, 2013
Guangzhou Evergrande fans celebrate after winning the AFC Champions League title in November.
Guangzhou Evergrande fans celebrate after winning the AFC Champions League title in November.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hong Kong slumbers through the Asian Champions' crunch match against Bayern Munich
  • Bayern wins the game 3-0, but Guangzhou fans delight in being on the same pitch as Bayern
  • The Chinese team beat African champions Al Ahly to set up the semifinal clash with Bayern
  • Newly wealthy Guangzhou is making new fans across China

(CNN) -- We're barely 60 miles southeast of the home of China's latest sports phenomenon, but as kickoff approaches the atmosphere in Hong Kong is, in contrast to European Champions League nights, muted at best.

The city's fans, it seems, don't always have the stomach for 3.30 a.m. kickoffs.

A mere border may separate Hong Kong from Guangdong and its flagship sports franchise, Guangzhou Evergrande FC, but the city sleeps, unaware, or uncaring, that the team from the neighboring province is playing the game of their lives.

This team, which was languishing in China's second division when property magnate Xu Jiayin bought it in 2010, has just played current European champions Bayern Munich at the Stade d'Agadir in Morocco.

There is no feeling of ownership here of the team that has surprised everyone, and captured a historic trophy in the process, as Hong Kong fans struggle to even find the FIFA Club World Cup on their dials.

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The fiscal situation of this Southern Chinese team is not dissimilar to that at, say, Chelsea or Manchester City, both title hopefuls in England's overwhelmingly popular Premier League, or Ligue 1's Paris Saint Germain, who have similarly benefited enormously from the largesse of well-to-do owners.

All three have designs on Europe's biggest prize, the Champions League.

Chinese domestic football can't hope to match the popularity of English or Spanish football here in Hong Kong, but even so there's been little sense of occasion tonight.

If anyone was capturing hearts and minds it would have been the Bayern players, with an assured victory over the newly wealthy Chinese, with three rapid-fire goals around the half-time whistle sealing victory in a game in which Guangzhou failed to score.

The result was never really in doubt -- the question was rather the severity of the mauling, but just to be on the same pitch in a competitive match, albeit as underdogs, is enough for many Mainland fans.

Read: German champion closer to 'final objective'

After all, Bayern are the team of wunder-coach Pep Guardiola, formerly of storied serial winners FC Barcelona, along with players such as midfield maestro Philip Lahm and Ballon d'Or hopeful Franck Ribery.

While it might have been hard to tell in Hong Kong, it has been arguably the biggest night of Guangzhou Evergrande's short existence, eclipsing even the AFC Champion's League victory over FC Seoul on away goals in October, a victory orchestrated by Italy's 2006 World Cup-winning coach Marcelo Lippi.

China's last success on the Asian stage came over two decades earlier -- before some of the players on the pitch were even born -- when Liaoning triumphed in the now-defunct Asian Club Championship.

Xu, who runs property developer Evergrande Real Estate Group and is reportedly China's 13th richest man, energized Chinese football when his team lifted the AFC Champions League trophy in October.

And while it is nigh-on impossible to break the hegemony of the European leagues' popularity in Asia, beating the best of Korea, Japan and Iran -- who supplied the other representatives of the semi-finals -- proved that China could compete with the best, regionally at least, and brought them to the world's attention last night.

The Chinese team beat African champions Al Ahly in Saturday's quarter final to set up the semifinal clash with Bayern, whose form under Guardiola has been frighteningly good. While aspirations of beating this stellar team may be beyond the Chinese arrivistes at present, their last match showed promise. With success comes profile, and with profile, fans.

It makes me proud to see a Chinese team playing at this level
Louis Tong

"I'm not a fan yet, just interested," Louis Tong says by email the day before the match. This Hong Kong-based Manchester United fan said he was planning on getting up -- or staying up -- to watch the match.

"It makes me proud to see a Chinese team playing at this level, and if they win I'll think about starting to go up to watch their games in Guangzhou."

Prizing the loyalty of already-declared fans like Tong away from their European teams might be a hard sell for an outfit that routinely plies its trade week-in, week-out in the parochial confines of the Chinese Super League, but the team's run of form has started to win them new admirers, like 19-year-old Yue Xu, who comes from Guangzhou but studying in Rennes, in France.

"I am not a real fan,'" she says, also by email. "However. maybe later I'll be more interested [in the team]... [the club's] success attracts me to become a fan of it.

"Xu Jiayin is starting a long-term project -- he is setting up football schools and recruiting the best coaches."

Ahead of the game, she remains coy about predicting the result, but with an admirable optimism says, "I believe that my team, our Chinese team will make a miracle."

But not everyone in China is convinced. Gong Lei, President of China Fanclub des FC Bayern M√ľnchen in Beijing, tells CNN that he's happy that Bayern played a Chinese team.

"On one hand it's my favorite team, and on the other it's a team from my country," he says via a translator.

"It's not that much of a test of my loyalty. I pay much more attention to Bayern's games and even though Guangzhou is a Chinese team I don't follow them so closely.

"I hope that at some point in the future a Chinese team will be able to rival a European team but for the present there's still quite a gap in the skill level. But this is a good start, and for Chinese teams to play European teams more often is a good learning opportunity."

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