The past Sunday was, indeed, memorable for Shanghai SIPG, with the newly-promoted side sealing their first point in only their second Chinese Super League outing. Despite losing 4-1 at Beijing Guoan in the opener, last season's first-division champions rallied to draw 1-1 with Guizhou Renhe at home, a result which moved them to tenth place in the 16-strong table.
Interestingly, the Shanghai side earned the point under none other than former China PR and Guizhou boss Gao Hongbo. The visitors went ahead on 24 minutes when Zlatan Muslimovic got his head on Zvjezdan Misimovic's perfect pass to open the scoring. But Gao's side drew level shortly after the restart, with Wu Wenjun earning them a share of the spoils from the spot.
"I am a professional coach so my attitude remains unchanged regardless of the opponents," the 47-year-old told FIFA.com recently. "During my playing career I had represented Beijing Guoan and before taking up Guizhou's reins I had coached Changchun Yatai. But despite changing roles, we should always maintain the same spirit on the pitch, although we are all friends off the ground."
A sparkling past year
For those following the Chinese game, the past year has been undoubtedly colorful. While star-imports like Didier Drogba, Nicolas Anelka and Seydou Keita graced the local scene, as many as eleven foreign coaches – including several world renowned names - were appointed. As a result, merely five clubs counted on home-grown coaches.
Entering the previous season with a humble ninth-place finish in 2011, Guizhou were certainly not among the pre-season favourites. However, under Gao the side soon established them as a force to be reckoned with and they finished in fourth place, four places ahead of Alexandre Guimaraes' Tianjin Teda and seven above Takeshi Okada's Hangzhou Greentown.
Even more impressively, Guizhou stormed into the FA Cup final only to be edged out by Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande. With the latter finishing league and cup double winners, however, Guizhou were guaranteed their maiden appearance in the AFC Champions League.
"I am happy with what I have achieved with Guizhou," said Gao, who edged not only his local counterparts but also the majority of foreign managers to be nominated for the 2012 Chinese Coach of the Year alongside Lippi and Jiangsu Sainty's Dragan Okuka. "Football is all about team work, so the achievements we have achieved with Guizhou should be attributed to the joint efforts by all those involving in our work. As a coach, my job was getting the best of the players and making sure the team is strong and compact as a unit."
Memories in charge of China
This is not, of course, the first time Gao has been in the limelight. A cool-headed former goal-getter with both club and country, Gao raised many eyebrows when he took Changchun Yatai to the Super League crown in only their second top-flight season in 2007.
Two years later he became the China coach, his appointment coming in the wake of the country's failed qualifying campaign for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. And he got his national team tenure off to a brilliant start with a solitary-goal defeat of Iran, before seeing off Lebanon both home away during 2011 AFC Asian Cup qualifying.
"It was a big opportunity to take the reins of the national team", said Gao. "And of course, it was a challenge as well. China's football has been on a downward trend since 2002, when we made our Word Cup debut. With so much hardship facing us, I felt a great deal of responsibility to revive our footballing fortunes."
A series of young talents broke into Gao's national team as he aimed to build a team that could qualify for Brazil 2014. Tactically, he focused on possession, passing and speedy attacking, a strategy with helped them win the 2010 EAFF Championship ahead of Japan and Korea Republic. Notably, ending a 32-year drought in style by routing Korea Republic 3-0.
"We had a good side then", continued Gao, whose record in charge of China also includes a 1-0 friendly win against France and a 3-0 triumph over Honduras. "We had creative talent in Deng Zhuoxiang and Zhao Xuri driving the team from midfield, while both Qu Bo and Yu Hanchao had the ability to stun opponents with their pace and finishing. We tried to maintain the control of midfield and attack down both flanks. It was a tactic that proved profitable for us."
China maintained good form during his 27 months in charge, winning 24 and drawing 13 of the 42 games played. Not surprisingly, this proud record saw China move up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking to Asia's top five in July of 2011, and as a result were seeded in the continent's third qualifying round for Brazil 2014, alongside Australia, Japan, Korea Republic and Iran.
Gao, who made way for Jose Antonio Camacho two years ago as China sought further progress under the experienced Spaniard, shed light on his coaching secret. He said: "I always concentrate on organisation and co-operation among the players, because when the players work for the common cause both on and off the pitch, the faith and unity can create great strengths. And definitely, your must discover the tactic which best suits your players."
"Coaching is not only teaching, but also learning," a modest Gao concluded. "I gained good knowledge from the national team's former foreign coaches from England, Germany and Netherlands, particularly when I worked as assistant to former China coach Arie Haan. All this laid the foundation for my coaching. So if you want to win, you must learn."