Football: China hopes Guangzhou success will spark life into floundering local game

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Millions of football fans are hoping that Guangzhou Evergrande can become the first Chinese team in 23 years to be crowned Asian champions on Saturday, potentially giving a boost to the nation's problem-riddled system.

The Chinese Super League (CSL) champions will be taking on South Korea's FC Seoul in the second leg of the AFC Champions League (ACL) - the continent's premier club tournament - in its southern home of Guangzhou, following a 2-2 draw in Seoul.

The 58,000-seat Tianhe stadium has sold out, with widespread touting of tickets as fans queued overnight for a chance to witness a potential milestone for the local game.

Long beset by corruption, match-fixing scandals and chronic underperformance; a victory for the Chinese league champions, led by Italian World Cup-winning coach Marcello Lippi, could be a stepping stone for the nation of 1.3 billion to rejuvenate its footballing potential and overhaul the ailing system.

"This could make history for Chinese football," said Chen Zhongming, who helps run Guangzhou Evergrande's fan club. "After years of failure, a win would give encouragement. But China football still needs to change its old ways."

An anti-corruption campaign since 2009 has jailed or punished nine officials, four judges, 13 footballers or coaches and 17 club workers.

In recent years, the CSL's commercialisation and infusion of highly-paid, world-class names such as Lippi and former England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson, alongside players like Didier Drogba, have added a touch of glamour and depth.

Former England captain David Beckham was even appointed CSL ambassador in March and was mobbed by fans on a week-long tour of the country in June where he spoke of his desire to inspire local children back to the game.

But institutional problems - including an opaque and powerful football bureaucracy, lax oversight, poor management, piecemeal youth training schemes and widespread underground football betting rings - continue to corrode the sport's development.

While football is one of China's most popular sports, the national team has long punched below its weight, ranked 97th by Fifa and only once qualifying for the World Cup in 2002, when Asian neighbours South Korea and Japan were co-hosts.

China's leader Xi Jinping, an avid football fan, will be hoping for a Guangzhou victory, tuning in to the game on live TV alongside millions of other Chinese.

He has spoken in the past of "three wishes" for China; to qualify for another World Cup, to host a World Cup and to eventually win one.

Those wishes remain pipe dreams for now.

China failed to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, not even making it to the final stage for the top 10 teams in Asia.

Earlier this year, China was thrashed 5-1 by lowly Thailand in a home friendly match, prompting the Global Times, a popular tabloid owned by the Communist Party's People's Daily, to write: "The litany of losses runs deep and the woes of the soccer team have come to represent a microcosm of China's social problems, particularly corruption."

The next opportunity to host the World Cup is in 2026, with Beijing having not entered the running for the 2018 and 2022 tournaments which will be held in Russia and Qatar. "The really amazing thing about football is that anything can happen out on the field, and the results are unpredictable," Xi said on a recent overseas visit.

A win for the Guangzhou Evergrande "Reds", will make them the second Chinese side to clinch the region's top club tournament since Liaoning landed the Asian Club Championship in 1990 but the first since it was revamped and rebranded as the ACL in 2002.

With a milestone on the line, interest has been high and security tight for fear of unrest if Seoul prove victorious.

Some 10,000 police will maintain order on match day, according to the official Guangzhou Daily, while the authorities have set up a small emergency leadership group for the match.

"The impact of this match is nationwide in scale, we must ensure there is no trouble," including vandalism or unrest in the event of a defeat, the newspaper noted.