Last November, dripping with sweat from the humid night air in southern China and a rushed train journey from Hong Kong, I bumped into two giants of European football.
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21 Feb 2014 - 4:05 PM  UPDATED 3 Mar 2014 - 4:59 PM

Deep in the bowels of the Tianhe Stadium and with a light and music show reverberating from the pitch after Guangzhou had just won the nation’s first AFC Champions League title, I turned to leave and tripped over the leg of a tall, foreign figure.

It belonged to the former Spain and Real Madrid captain Fernando Hierro. Standing next to him was an ex-Galactico team-mate in Luis Figo – both looking as surprised as I was, though probably for different reasons.

Hierro and Figo had been flown to the ACL final as guests of Guangzhou – a club that has been fostering ties with the Spanish giant for several years.

In the build-up to the final they’d been taken along to inspect the crowning achievement of this partnership – the world’s largest football school, located just to the north of Guangzhou, in the city of Qingyuan.

The school has 27 football pitches, with plans for another 50 during the next few years.

More than 2,500 students - both primary and secondary - are enrolled and there are 22 coaches, including former Espanyol player David Rodriguez.

When clubs talk about investing in the grassroots this is pretty much the dream scenario. It also takes deep pockets and that’s something which Evergrande chairman Xu Jiayin has.

You want to know how deep?

Deep enough that, upon Marcello Lippi’s arrival at the club, they promptly hired an Italian chef to cook for the Tuscan native and his staff at their training ground.

Deep enough that, in the off-season just passed, they moved to replace the marvellous Argentine schemer Dario Conca - a player who earned a reputed annual salary of $13 million - with an Italian international in Alessandro Diamanti.

The midfielder, snatched from Serie A club Bologna, may have a Taiwanese wife who he suggested was from China, but there was nothing tangled up about his reasoning for the move: 'it was a lifestyle choice but"¦ of course I’m getting paid well."

While money is seemingly no object for the Canton powerhouse, there was a minor mutiny in the ranks when the club decided to slash the bonus structure paid to the team for this year’s ACL matches.

Halved from last year’s RMB 6 million, it still means that each player in the squad stands to earn a handy $25,000 for each win in the group stage but the rub - and a sign of on occasion how uneven the playing field remains - is that for each loss the players will be fined the same amount.

If it looks - and it does - like a land of milk and honey, it bears remembering that the earth was parched and cracked barely four years ago.

At the commencement of the 2010 season the club found itself relegated to the second tier of Chinese football on the back of a match-fixing scandal, while last December it met Bayern Munich in the semi-finals of the Club World Cup.

In between there has been record transfer fee after record transfer fee and with most of the foreign recruitment the club has got it spot on; a key component in a visa-capped league that’s often overlooked.

Not happy with Korean coach Lee Jang-soo who, in his three years at the club, won three league titles and a cup, they replaced him with Lippi; when Cleo and Lucas Barrios were sent away/out they uncovered the best finisher in Asian football – Brazilian Elkeson, a barrel-chested beast of a forward who has feet of silk and a head of steel.

A player who is fed by another of his countrymen of an entirely different physique, the electric left winger Muriqui, a man with almost 2 million followers on the country’s version of twitter, Sina Weibo, yet who is a silent assassin on the pitch.

A dribbler, a mover, a creator, a finisher.

But it’s not just the foreigners who pose a threat for Melbourne Victory next week in China; the club also has the bulk of the national side which is on the cusp of reaching next year’s Asian Cup.

Of the seven Chinese players likely to start against Victory, six (goalkeeper Zeng Cheng, defenders Sun Xiang, Feng Xiaoting and Zhang Linpeng plus midfielders Zheng Zhi and Huang Bowen) started for the national team in its most recent qualifier against Saudi Arabia.

Another, Zhao Xuri, was on the bench while Gao Lin, unlikely to crack a start for Guangzhou, was one of the forwards in the national XI.

For good measure, they poached another - midfielder Liu Jian - from Qingdao in the current off-season, although there is still a dispute over that transfer that may end up in the hands of higher powers.

While many bemoan the growing gap domestically between Guangzhou and the rest (they won the Super League by 18 points last season), some encouraging signs have emerged, with Shandong Luneng in particular having recruited strongly over the current off-season.

In a continental context, though, one thing is clear – this is the first genuine "super-power" we’ve seen during the 12 years of the tournament.

From Melbourne’s perspective, if there’s any hope to be had, it’s that it's drawn Lippi’s side before they’ve played any competitive matches ... well, kind of.

The traditional season-opening Super Cup was played last weekend at an earlier time than usual to accommodate the national team’s final Asian Cup qualifier in early March.

Guangzhou objected to the new time slot but the CFA refused to budge, citing TV and commercial requirements to which the biggest club in the land (only recently returned from a training camp in Spain) basically thumbed its nose.

It sent a mixture of reserve and youth teams out to face the winner of last year’s FA Cup, Guizhou, and narrowly lost 1-0.

This is the new reality, conceived and nurtured in less than half a decade, of Chinese and Asian football.

For better or worse.