When Paulinho headed Guangzhou Evergrande into the semi-finals of the FIFA Club World Cup Japan 2015 in stoppage time of their encounter with Club America, the stadium erupted in cheers. Shortly after, as the Brazilian was again buried under a pile of his ecstatic team-mates when the whistle blew to confirm the Chinese side’s 2-1 win, the secret hero of the evening was beginning his own celebrations in the AFC Champions League winners’ penalty area.
Over the preceding 90 minutes, goalkeeper Li Shuai had ensured that Guangzhou stayed in the game. By making a string of impressive saves, the Chinese shot-stopper prevented the Mexicans from adding a second goal to their 55th-minute opener, thus helping Evergrande to emerge victorious from a dramatic encounter at the Osaka Nagai Stadium.
“He’s our No1 and possesses all the qualities you need in a top-quality goalkeeper,” Guangzhou coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said in tribute to the imposing 1.93-metre figure between the posts. “Li is a great keeper with tremendous experience and he proved that in front of the world this evening.”
While clearly flattered by this considerable compliment, the Asian champions’ modest custodian instead preferred to pass the praise on to this team-mates. “I’m obviously very happy; it’s a great feeling,” Li Shuai explained in an interview with FIFA.com, “but the entire side played their part in this success. I can only thank the lads in front of me for the way they performed.” Guangzhou turned the match decisively in their favour in the closing stages of the game through a combination of limitless energy and irrepressible desire, equalising through Zheng Long after 80 minutes before Paulinho wrapped things up for the Chinese side late on.
We never stopped believing that we could still win the game.
“Our belief was the deciding factor today,” explained the visibly proud 33-year-old. “We never stopped believing that we could still win the game.” The goalkeeper’s emphatic performance firmly established him as his side’s 'Great Wall of China' and kept his team’s hopes alive while at the same time driving the opposition’s attacking players to despair.
“He did really well,” Club America coach Ignacio Ambriz conceded ruefully. “He pulled off several great saves, especially in the first half. We would have been home and dry and in the semi-finals had he not made those saves. He made the difference,” he continued. “Not only did he save his own side, but he frustrated our forwards.”
As a result, it is now the Chinese rather than the Mexicans who face a semi-final clash with Barcelona and their array of international superstars, headed by Lionel Messi. Li Shuai is looking ahead to his latest challenge with confidence rather than fear. “I can’t wait for this game and I’ll just enjoy it,” he said, before adding: “Now we want to go all the way to the final.”
The self-confessed Peter Schmeichel fan is well aware that he may play a key role in pulling off another shock, explaining: “As a goalkeeper, you have the chance to become a hero.” There is no doubt that Evergrande’s upcoming showdown with the European treble-winners will provide him with just such an opportunity.