Sunday 16th October 2011 is a day that will live long in the memory of every Guangzhou Evergrande supporter, it was a time to celebrate their team’s first ever league title and reflect on a job well done. It had been a long time coming and they were going to make the most of it.
Guangdong province is often referred to as the ‘factory of the world’ and chances are if you see a ‘Made in China’ logo on your product it has been made here. The people of Guangzhou have a hunger for merchandise and they weren’t disappointed with the selection on offer proclaiming Heng Da as the number one team in China. Flags were emblazoned with the characters ‘women shi guanjun‘- (we are the champions), replica shirts featured a new gold star above the team badge and there were some fetching t-shirts that showed the signatures of the class of 2011.
It was a party atmosphere in the stadium, with Mexican wave after Mexican wave sweeping around the arena and strangers congratulating each other and shaking hands. Personally I think this is one of the greatest things about being a football fan: as people we are strangers but as supporters we are one. As always the stands were a sea of red but I have to give credit to the small pocket of Shanghai Shenhua fans who came to the game and rarely sat down for the duration of the 90 minutes!
If the atmosphere was relaxed and akin to a party the performance in the first half by Evergrande was anything but. They were as workmanlike and as ruthless as ever and they spent large spells camped in the Shanghai half. They were hungry for goals from the off and after a number of chances in the first ten minutes, the breakthrough came when Muriqui was felled in the area and Dario Conca converted the penalty.
The 2nd goal came on 30 minutes as Gao Lin threaded a sumptuous through-ball to Muriqui who sidefooted past the over-worked Shanghai goalkeeper Qiu Shenjiong. Muriqui didn’t have to wait too long for his second goal of the game as the goalkeeper spilled a freekick fired straight at him, and the Brazilian striker duly converted with the simplest of finishes.
Halftime, 3-0, and the big screen was showing highlights from this season- all in all morale was high at the Tianhe Stadium. The second half was more the game we had expected and was played at a relaxed pace. Guangzhou seemed to be content with their three goal lead and Shanghai came more into the match with some pot shots at goal and forcing a wonder save from Yang Jun on 65 minutes from Shenhua winger Feng Renliang. A storybook ending would’ve included a goal from Gao Lin, or Muriqui completing his hat-trick, but it didn’t matter. It was another comfortable win and it was time to celebrate.
After the final whistle the players collected their winners medals one-by-one and whilst the foreign stars received loud ovations it was good to hear the warm reception that home grown players such as Wu Pingfeng got. He is a man who has been here throughout all of the recent ups and downs and has always endeared himself to the fans with his work ethic and ability to beat a player.
The players focus was on giving head coach Lee Jang-Soo some deserved celebratory bumps. Echoes of Pep Guardiola from the Champions League final perhaps? A lap of honour followed the medal ceremony and we also witnessed a moment of hilarity as a giant Evergrande shirt banner was hoisted over the fans but split almost immediately! The remains of the shirt were passed around the stadium and plastic footballs fell from the sky to give the supporters a little souvenir of the night’s events. It was a night that was savoured by the fans, players and backroom staff and they’ll be hoping there’ll be many more of these special nights to come.
Ground: Hongkou Football Stadium, Hongkou District, Shanghai
Capacity: 35,000 (26,000 for football)
Honours: Chinese top-tier league champions: 1995
Chinese top-tier league runners-up: 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2006, 2008
Chinese FA Cup winners: 1998
Chinese FA Cup runners up: 1995, 1997, 2015