Guangzhou Evergrande, under Marcello Lippi, sealed their qualification for the 2013 FIFA Club World Cup by winning this year's AFC Champions League in style. While Morocco 2013 marks the Chinese champions' first time at the global showpiece, it is indeed the third FIFA tournament for a trio of former youth stars in defender Feng Xiaoting, marksman Gao Lin and midfielder Zhao Xuri.
All three of these players exploded onto the international scene at the FIFA U-20 World Cup Netherlands 2005, during which they excelled and helped China PR to the second round. Three years later, they represented their country at the Olympic Football Tournament Beijing 2008. With the FIFA Club World Cup kicking off in less than a month, needless to say, they all relish the opportunity of playing in another world event.
"The last two FIFA tournaments left us with mixed feelings of inspiring results and forgotten defeats," Feng, who skippered his side to three straight group victories in the FIFA youth tournament eight years ago, told FIFA.com. "The experiences we gained from those competitions proved precious for us. The Club World Cup will, I hope, be a good chance for us to showcase the progress we have made over the recent years."
Few question their capabilities of achieving this goal, considering their fine showings during this year's Asia-conquering campaign. While all of them impressed throughout the competition, Feng proved a cornerstone at the back through his vision and responsibility.
I was thinking about just one thing - to hold on until the final whistle.
"Being a defender means commitment and hard work," continued the 28-year-old. "You should always keep alert and get ready to stop the rivals. Your top priority is to dispel the danger, keep the opponents at bay and clear up the field in front of the goalkeeper."
Feng showed what kind of player he was in the second leg of the Champions League final. With FC Seoul desperate to break the deadlock after a 2-2 home draw, Feng was constantly first to the ball when there was danger. He beat FC Seoul top-scorer Dejan Damjanovic and Sergio Escudero to the ball on several occasions in the first half and, when the visitors threw everything forward in the closing stages in search of a match-winner, Feng was shrewd enough to run from deep and intercept the rivals' moves. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, a result which saw Guangzhou emerge victorious on away goals.
"We entered the game determined not to leave another regrettable result to haunt us for a long period," reflected Feng, whose side reached the last eight in the same campaign last year only to be edged out by Saudi Arabia's Al Ittihad. "So we gave it all and left nothing to spare. FC Seoul are a strong team and they caused difficulties for us, particularly in the closing minutes. But I was thinking about just one thing - to hold on until the final whistle. "
Gao comes of age
With Feng pulling his weights at the back, Gao Lin shone in his attacking role. Despite often being deployed as a substitute, Gao proved a constant threat to the rivals and scored two crucial goals. Notably, he latched onto Sun Xiang's pinpoint cross to give Guangzhou a 2-1 lead at FC Seoul, only to see the hosts equalize through Damjanovic's late strike.
Aside from that, he demonstrated his unselfishness throughout, providing six assists for his Brazilian striking partners Muriqui and Elkeson, who bagged 19 goals in total. The record saw him edge Esteglal's Javad Nekounam to emerge as the campaign's king of assists.
We are a team so it doesn't matter who delivers the strike
"We are a team so it doesn't matter who delivers the strike," Gao told FIFA.com. "The important thing is that we win as a team. They are top-quality players and it is always enjoyable to play together with them. "
Powerful foot Zhao
Zhao Xuri, meanwhile, earned the recognition of Lippi as well as the fans through his tireless displays in midfield. He sealed China PR's 2-1 victory against Turkey at Netherlands 2005 with one of the tournament's finest strikes, and fans affectionately nicknamed him: Powerful Foot Zhao.
For all three, their debut FIFA competition eight years ago is memorable. They were invincible in a group which also featured Ukraine and Panama to reach the second round, where they faced Germany. The Chinese opened brightly by twice taking the lead, but it was Germany who ran out 3-2 victors.
"Coincidentally, I thought of the German game the moment when we won the Champions League," Feng concluded. "In our first FIFA competition our promising campaign ended in heart-breaking fashion so we should work harder not to let the history repeat itself this time around. In this Club World Cup the opponents are stronger and we have to do our best to get a satisfying result."