• Skipper Zheng Zhi leads his players from China's Guangzhou Evergrande in training for the AFC Champions League final second leg against Al Ahli (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Twenty-five years ago in Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning province in north-eastern China, a nine-year old boy sat in front of the TV as his local football club, Liaoning FC, won a thriller against Nissan Yokohama to be crowned champions of Asia.
By
Paul Williams

21 Nov 2015 - 11:21 AM  UPDATED 21 Nov 2015 - 5:23 PM

That young boy was Zheng Zhi.

For twenty-three years Liaoning FC remained the only Chinese club to reach the summit of Asian football. That was until the juggernaut known as Guangzhou Evergrande swept all before them to win the 2013 AFC Champions League, captained by none other than Zheng himself.

“My hometown is Liaoning, so I watched Liaoning become Asian champion on TV with great excitement,” the 35-year-old told AFC Quarterly magazine last year. “I had just began training as a footballer when Liaoning were crowned Asian champions.”

And now, with Guangzhou Evergrande in the final again, Zheng has the chance to create history by captaining Guangzhou to their second AFC Champions League title, in the process becoming the first Chinese club to win the competition twice.

And while no doubt secondary in his mind heading into Saturday night's second leg with Al Ahli at the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou, the possibility of further personal glory awaits.

If Guangzhou are successful, and they are hot favourites after holding Al Ahli to a 0-0 draw in Dubai in the first leg, Zheng would be favourite to claim his second AFC Player of the Year award, which would elevate him into esteemed company alongside Majed Abdullah, Kim Joo-Sung (both thrice), Hidetoshi Nakata and Server Djeparov as the only players to win the award more than once.

Winning trophies has become something of a habit for Zheng throughout his long and distinguished career.

After coming through Liaoning’s youth academy, he made the switch to Shenzhen Jianlibao in 2001 as a 20-year-old. Having played predominantly as a defender as a junior, he was given the chance to play in midfield by coach Zhu Guanghu.

It proved to be a successful switch, with Zheng playing a vital role in Shenzhen winning the inaugural Chinese Super League in 2004, while also starring for his national team on home soil at the AFC Asian Cup, arguably the Chinese national team’s finest hour.

Progressing to the final, where they would succumb to a dominant Japan, Zheng was one of the standout players of the tournament, scoring three times and being named in the All-Star team.

“The 2004 campaign is a fond memory for us," he told FIFA.com last year. "The whole team played well and the only pity was that we failed (against Japan) in the final."

It was the beginning of a purple patch for Zheng who moved to Shandong Luneng at the end of the 2004 season, helping the club win the league and cup double in 2006. Continuing his midfield role he also discovered his scoring boots, scoring 31 times across 2005 and 2006.

It was while at Shandong in 2005 that he got his first taste of continental football, helping his side progress to the last eight, where they were unceremoniously smashed by eventual champion Al-Ittihad 8-3 on aggregate.

His form hadn’t gone unnoticed in Europe either, and a loan move to then English Premier League side Charlton eventuated, with Zheng becoming the first Chinese player to appear for the Addicks.

“Going to England was not a hard decision for me because I was always thirsty to play football in Europe, which is the centre of football,” he told AFC Quarterly. “My dream came true and I was able to show my ability to the whole world."

His six-month loan spell ended with Charlton being relegated to the Championship, but he had impressed enough to earn a permanent move and he officially joined the London club in August 2007.

Zheng moved to Celtic in 2009 after the Addicks were relegated again, this time to League One.

“The club changed a lot in two years, mostly because of financial problems,” he said. “Many good players left, so I went to Scotland in order to remain at a high level.”

The love affair with Celtic lasted just the one season before Zheng was tempted home to the ambitious Guangzhou Evergrande, then in the second division after their forced relegation in relation to match-fixing charges.

“The team was in the second division in China when I came back,” he said. “After I had discussions with the managers of the club I figured out this club had very big ambitions, so I made a decision to join them.”

It’s proven to be a wise decision.

The club cruised through the 2010 China League One season, finishing top ahead of Chengdu Blades, and earning promotion back to the Chinese Super League.

Few could have predicted what would follow. An unprecedented five consecutive Super League titles, along with the 2012 Chinese FA Cup and 2013 AFC Champions League.

In five short years the Southern China Tigers have gone from disgraced to distinguished, and are now undoubtedly the biggest club in Asia.

Pivotal to that success has been Zheng. While Lee Jang-soo opted to revert Zheng to a defender, the arrival of Marcello Lippi in 2012 meant a return to midfield, where he has flourished to become one of the most consistent performers on the continent.

A second AFC Champions League title, and possibly a second AFC Player of the Year award, would cap an illustrious and decorated career, which at 35 is now nearing an end. A look at his honour roll highlights just how successful his career has been.

Seven Chinese Super League titles with three different clubs, two Chinese FA Cups, one AFC Champions League title, nine times named in the CSL Team of the Year, Chinese Player of the Year in 2002 and 2006, and AFC Player of the Year in 2013.

The only thing missing is national team success for Zheng, who with 92 caps is China’s equal fourth most capped player of all-time - now just 14 caps behind Fan Zhiyi, the only other Chinese player to win the AFC Player of the Year award.

“Playing for my country is most important, but I regret that we couldn’t win the Asian Cup at home in 2004,” he said.

But he can have few complaints with his glittering club career, especially as he can hoist aloft the AFC Champions League trophy on home soil.

And as a nation watches on, many a young boy will be glued to the TV watching in excitement, as Zheng did 25 years ago, hoping he and his Guangzhou side can reclaim continental bragging rights.

:: Paul Williams is a freelance football writer specialising in Asian Football.