(Reuters) - Guangzhou Evergrande's AFC Champions League success shows sleeping soccer giants China are finally stirring amid a growing belief that a bright international future is no longer a distant dream.
Guangzhou became the first Chinese side to win Asia's premier club tournament when they edged FC Seoul on away goals after a 1-1 draw at home to the South Koreans on Saturday left the tie level at 3-3 on aggregate.
The victory was hailed throughout China, with fans and local government hailing the rare international soccer success by the world's most populous country.
"An important international trophy like this one is certainly a prize for all Chinese football," Guangzhou manager Marcello Lippi told reporters.
"The team has grown a lot ... and many of those players are in the national team. The hope is that this is also growth for Chinese football."
While China has emerged as an Olympic powerhouse, success in the world's favorite sport has proved a much tougher goal.
An opaque and powerful football bureaucracy, poor management, piecemeal youth training schemes and widespread underground betting rings have corroded the sport and restricted China to just one World Cup finals appearance and no Asian Cup success.
If the Chinese Football Association, on an anti-corruption drive since 2009, want to rectify that they need not look beyond Guangzhou, whose rise to continental champions comes almost four years after they were demoted to the second tier in China after a match-fixing scandal.
New owners came with a change of name to Evergrande and big investment brought in Brazilian striker Muriqui, top scorer in the Champions League this year, and a promotion was gained. Investment was also made into local soccer schools.
Further cash acquired Argentine playmaker Dario Conca, Lippi, Brazil forward Elkeson, who scored against Seoul on Saturday, and the cream of domestic talent as the trophies flowed.
Three consecutive Chinese Super Leagues have been met with high praise but it was China's first success in the continent since Liaoning won the 1990 Asian Club Championship that has brought about a widespread optimism.
"The triumph of Evergrande in the Asian Football Confederation shows there's hope for China's soccer," Zhang Jilong, AFC senior vice-president, was quoted as saying by state news agency Xinhua.
"The big investment from the club contributed a lot to China's soccer in recent years, but we can't say it's the only pattern of development for Chinese soccer."
Chinese Super League side Shanghai Shenhua also spent heavily in search of success.
They coaxed former Chelsea strikers Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka into joining the team last year only for both to depart swiftly amid rumors of unpaid wages and complaints about lack of professionalism.
The money has also flowed at national team level, but Spaniard Jose Antonio Camacho proved an expensive flop with his side slumping to a humiliating 5-1 home friendly loss to Thailand and not even making the final stages of World Cup qualifying in Asia.
Fu Bo has taken over as temporary coach with improved results from a Guangzhou-heavy squad ahead of two key Asian Cup qualifiers at home to Indonesia and Saudi Arabia over the next eight days.
Many in China, ranked 97th by FIFA, have called for Lippi to take the reins of the national team while some feel the CFA and other clubs could simply copy his Guangzhou model.
"Guangzhou Evergrande's success comes from a professional operation, including a scientific training system, after bringing in a coaching squad from Italy and a series of incentives to boost players' motivation," Zhou Sui'an, who led Guangzhou to second place in 1994 league season, told China Daily.
"Other Chinese clubs cannot buy big stars as Evergrande did in the past few years, but they can follow the professional management style."
Guangzhou will now head to Morocco for the FIFA Club World Cup next month hoping to show the AFC Champions League was only the start of a series of success.
(Reporting by Venus Wu; Writing by Patrick Johnston; editing by Amlan Chakraborty)