This weekend is special for Liaoning fans. Not because they’ll host Yanbian in China League One, but because it’s the anniversary of the crowning achievement of one of China’s greatest ever teams. In April 1990, Liaoning beat Nissan Yokohama to become China’s first ever Asian Champions.
‘10 year champions’
Before the current glory of Guangzhou Evergrande and the Dalian Wanda/Shide dynasty in the early years of professionalism, there was the Liaoning provincial team. In the decade before the professional era, Liaozu were the dominant team in China. The men from the north east won seven league titles, two CFA Cups, and the Asian Club Championship – forerunner of today’s ACL – between 1984 and 1993.
The only constant in the league structure in those days was change. Whether it was a 30 game season, a reduced 15 game one, or a season played over two group stages didn’t matter to Liaoning. They almost always won. China B beat them to the title in 1989 but Liaoning won every other league championship they entered between ‘85 and ‘93. Tianjin and Guangzhou lost out by single points in ’87 and ’92 respectively, whilst Guangdong were denied on goal difference in ’93 but no side could consistently challenge Liaoning over the 10 years.
Domestically, Liaoning were only vulnerable in the CFA Cup, going out against the Cantonese sides and Dalian. Liaoning still won the Cup twice in the six years it was played in their glory days though.
Liaoning’s heyday came towards the end of the state-sponsored pre-professional days and included the semi-pro era when commercial sponsorship was first allowed. In those days, teams relied on local players as there was no formal transfer system. Despite the province covering almost 150,000km2, many of Liaozu’s players came from the city of Dalian which proclaims itself ‘the home of football’, as does Meizhou in Guangdong.
Unsurprisingly given their domestic supremacy, Liaoning’s players formed a major part of the Chinese national side in the 80s and early 90s days. Keeper Fu Yubin, defenders Dong Liqiang and Gao Sheng, and forwards Tang Yaodong and Ma Lin –yes, the one who managed Dalian Yifang – were all part of the Chinese team that missed out on qualifying for Italia’90 by just three minutes. When Klaus Schlappner tried to take China to the ’94 World Cup, Dong Liqiang was joined by fellow Liaoning defenders Li Qiang and Zhao Faqing, plus midfielder Sun Wei and keeper Xu Tao in the national team.
Not as celebrated outside the borders of Liaoning, players such as Lu Dong, Sun Xianlu – who managed Dalian Aerbin, now Dalian Yifang, in 2010- speedy forward Huang Chong, and long serving Fu Bo are fondly remembered in Liaoning.
Scarily, Liaoning could’ve been even better. National team captain and centre back Jia Xiuquan and fellow defender Zhu Bo were both Dalian born and represented China throughout Liaoning’s dominant period. The pair played for Bayi – the army team – rather than Liaoning province though.
After a 14 year hiatus, the Asian Club Championship (ACC) restarted in 1985. When they appeared in the group stages that year, Liaoning were the first ever Chinese side to play in the competition. It was not an auspicious start. Liaozu lost home and away to Hong Kong’s Seiko FC in two bad tempered games either side of China’s infamous loss to Hong Kong in World Cup qualifying. Whilst there was a charged political backdrop, the spark was Gao Sheng’s horror challenge on the Seiko keeper. Liaoning followed this with an away defeat against April 25 – the North Korean army team – and a 0-0 draw at home. They were out.
After a chastening first experience of Asian competition, Liaoning didn’t enter the Chinese league in ’86 so that they could concentrate on the ACC. It almost paid off. Liaoning got revenge on April 25 on their way to the final four. Instead of semis and a final, the winner was decided by a gruelling final group stage with three games over five days in Riyadh. Liaoning could only finish third.
Over the following two years, Bayi (league winners in Liaoning’s absence) and Guangdong (National Games winners in 1987) were both eliminated at the second group stage.
Third time lucky
Liaoning’s next chance at continental glory came in August 1989. With the benefit of home advantage, they topped their qualification group. Liaozu beat Nissan Yokohama and whipping boys Hap Kuan from Macau, and drew with North Korean side Chandongcha.
The second group stage was held in Indonesia but the result was the same. Liaoning again topped the group thanks to two wins and a draw.
Their opponents in the final were old foes Nissan Yokohama. Called Yokohama Marinos these days, the club then had a distinctly Brazilian flavour. They were coached by former Brazil international Oscar and fielded three Brazilians – including ex-international Carlos Renato Frederico – as well as a host of Japanese internationals. They also had home advantage for the first leg.
It was Liaoning who scored first though. Fu Bo rose highest in the six yard box to head the opener but Yokohama equalised before half time. The Japanese also hit the post three times but Huang Chong’s second half goal won the game for Liaoning.
Kings of Asia
Shenyang’s Wulihe Stadium hosted some of Chinese football’s most memorable moments. It was opened by Santos 1989 and a win there in 2001 saw China qualify for the 2002 World Cup. On April 29th 1990, it hosted the final of the ACC. The 60,000 seater was packed and showers of ticker tape fell from sections of the stands – see the end of this video.
It was 0-0 at half time so Liaoning were only 45 minutes away from becoming China’s first Asian champions. With only a one goal lead, it was a precarious advantage though. Liaoning talisman Ma Lin hadn’t started the game because of injury, but he’d had four painkilling injections so manager Li Yingfa brought him on at half time. It was an inspired move. Early in the second half, Gao Sheng fed Ma who crossed for Xu Hui to score. Liaoning were now 3-1 up on aggregate. The Japanese weren’t done though and scored to pull it back to 3-2 on aggregate with plenty of time left. There were no more goals though. Liaoning had done it. They were the kings of Asia.
The players did a lap of honour on Wulihe’s ticker tape strewn running track after the final whistle with a giant Chinese flag held above their heads. Celebrations spilled out onto the streets which Ma Lin remembers being too busy for the team bus to drive around.
Back to back?
Liaoning almost immediately repeated their continental heroics. They beat Yokohama again and also April 25 on their way to the final held in Dhaka in July 1991. This time Xu Hui’s goal was not enough though. Iran’s Esteghlal F.C. claimed their second ACC title with a 2-1 win over Liaozu.
Liaoning’s domestic superiority allowed them to enter the next four editions of the ACC. Knocked out by old foes April 25 in 91/92, they also went out early in 92/93 and 94/95, but they did make the semis in 93/94. Overall, Liaoning made the final twice and the last four on another two occasions in eight attempts. That Liaozu side were not just the best in China, they were one of the best in Asia.
Beginning of the end
Liaoning won the first experimental professional Chinese league in 1993. This remains their last significant trophy. Unable to adjust to professionalism and the loss of key players, Liaozu’s demise was complete with relegation to the second tier at the end of the ’95 season. Even using former players Gao Sheng, Tang Yaodong, and Ma Lin (on three occasions) as managers couldn’t bring back the glory days.
China’s most successful team in the early days of professionalism played in Liaoning but wasn’t the provincial side. Dalian Wanda/Shide won eight titles in 14 years. They couldn’t match Liaoning’s exploits in Asia though and it was 23 years before Liaoning lost their claim of being the only Chinese side to be Asian champions. Guangzhou Evergrande’s expensively assembled squad won the rebranded ACL on away goals by, erm, drawing both legs of the final against FC Seoul in 2013. Two years later they won it outright, beating Al-Ahli 1-0.
A glorious heritage
The current Liaoning side are languishing in China League One but their older fans can remember the glory days. The Liaozu side of that era was China’s first great footballing dynasty. Whilst others now fight over the title of kings of Chinese football, the crown was once undisputedly Liaoning’s. The jewel in their crown was the Asian Club Championship win in 1990.
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