Foriegn Sports

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FOOTBALL loves its flawed geniuses; the players who can be dazzling on the pitch, but destructive off it – sometimes even bringing their issues inside the field of play too. It accepts them as one of its own in a way few working environments would tolerate. That tendency is often questioned, and rightly so.

But in Diego Maradona, the sport has an overwhelming advert for its sometimes controversial policy. What the Argentine took away from football’s image, he more than handed back with two decades of pure brilliance.

That Maradona is constantly mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Puskas, Beckenbauer, Cruyff et al despite his well-known struggles says much about the impact he made wherever he went.

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CHINA PR, under new French boss Alain Perrin, have left no stone unturned in preparing for January’s 2015 AFC Asian Cup in Australia. Having failed to progress beyond the group phase during the past two editions in 2007 and 2011, Team Dragon face a tough group alongside three-time champions Saudi Arabia, fast-developing Uzbekistan and the enigmatic Korea DPR.

Even China’s own supporters are aware what a hard assignment they are faced with considering the team’s winless record against these rivals over recent years. Veteran midfielder Zheng Zhi, though, thinks otherwise, believing that the new-look team is capable of redeeming themselves on the continental stage this time around.

“Indeed, results by our national team over recent years are far from ideal,” the reigning AFC Player of the Year told FIFA.com. “But we are working hard and making progress. Everyone on the team is hoping to contribute to the team’s development and under the new coach we have focused more on teamwork, something which we have been found most lacking. I think that we are going in the right direction.”

Having said that, the Guangzhou Evergrande captain is under no illusions about the task that awaits. He said: “All the opponents are strong. Uzbekistan were among the impressive performers during the past Asian Cup, and Saudi Arabia are always hard to play against as traditional powerhouses. Korea DPR, meanwhile, represent a little known side. We must give it our all if we are to play well against them.”

Memorable campaign

Few dare to argue against Zheng Zhi, likely to be the only player of the current squad to survive from the 2004 AFC Asian Cup campaign in home soil. In fact, the-then Shenzhen Jianlibao midfielder scored three times as China finished as runners-up, equalling their best result in the Asian competition achieved in 1984. Not surprisingly, Zheng was singled out by FIFA technical adviser Joseph Venglos as one of the tournament’s emerging stars at the end of the campaign. Ten years on, Zheng Zhi thinks it is a feat from which he can still take heart.

“The 2004 campaign is a fond memory for us,” he recalled. “The whole team played well and the only pity was that we failed (against Japan) in the final. Although things have changed over these years, we can draw inspiration from the past as we are aiming to rebuild. We still have a couple of months to prepare and we should focus on our work rather than the outcomes.”

Zheng Zhi on the current state of the China PR national team

The past year has proved turbulent for both Zheng Zhi and China. The national team under-performed in qualifying for Australia 2015, only to narrowly secure a berth as the best third-placed team. As a result, Spanish coach Jose Antonio Camacho departed and made way for Perrin, while Zheng Zhi missed his place in the national team thereafter as the Frenchman recruited fresh faces and tested new line-ups.

With the new manager keen to build a young China squad, Zheng Zhi maintained his strong performance at club level, skippering Guangzhou to their fourth Chinese Super League title and the last-eight in the AFC Champions League. His brilliant form did not go unnoticed when he was called back to the national side after seven months. Zheng Zhi made an immediate impact upon his return, opening the scoring to steer China to a spirited 2-1 friendly victory against Paraguay.

“I am happy to come back to the national team,” Zheng continued, revealing his hopes of an ideal ending to what will likely be his Asian Cup swansong. “It was my childhood dream to represent the country so I am always ready to do my national service. I hope that I can do my part of job well and help the young team-mates (through my experiences). It should be my last Asian Cup so I want to satisfy our fans through my good performance.”

Prospects under new direction

Indeed, it was Zheng Zhi’s exceptional club form that helped him earn Perrin’s admiration. It was a season during which Zheng Zhi and Co withstood one challenge after another as Guangzhou largely lived up to the expectations.

As it turned out, Marcello Lippi’s side were given stiff tests in the latter stages of the domestic competition and could not afford to lose at Shandong Luneng in the closing game having been beaten by nearest title-contenders Beijing Guoan at home in dramatic fashion. Shandong took the lead after just 12 minutes to put the title-race on a knife’s edge, but Zheng Zhi provided the decisive assist for Elkeson’s equaliser as Guangzhou earned the much-needed point to defend their title.

“It has been a difficult season for us,” Zheng Zhi said. “We had to adapt to changes in both team make-up and tactics at the start of the year, while our rivals were keen to compete against us. We won the local league but it was a pity that we suffered an exit in the AFC Champions League quarter-finals.”

Lippi recently confirmed he would transition into a head coach role, with former Italy captain Fabio Cannavaro the successor to Lippi in the day-to-day management of the team. Despite the managerial switch, Zheng Zhi’s faith remains that Guangzhou can prolong their tremendous form next season.

He said: “Lippi has proved himself (as a world-class coach) with three league champions and an Asian title. Particularly, he has transformed the team, successfully moulding Guangzhou from a new side to Chinese and Asian champions. He has planted his attitudes of work-ethic and hunger into the team.

He is 66-years-old so his decision should be respected. He will still help us from a technical perespective so the team can continue to develop as we aim to recapture the AFC Champions League title.” — FIFA

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