The ever-growing Chinese Super League has become more attractive over the past years, but despite an increasing number of high-quality foreign players plying their trade in the world's most populous country, local fans still felt star-struck when Alberto Gilardino joined Guangzhou Evergrande in the middle of this season. Indeed, the FIFA World Cup™-winner is among the most heralded imported names on the local scene.
So why did the Italian striker who, despite having never played for clubs beyond his own country during a 15-year career, decide to travel across half the globe to the far east?
"I did receive a series of invitations from clubs of other countries in previous years," the 32-year-old former AC Milan and Genoa goal-getter explained to FIFA.com. "But I had never seriously considered the possibilities of moving overseas. Such thoughts remained unchanged until I got the offer from Guangzhou. Finally I signed the deal (with Guangzhou) because I wanted to come to China and experience a fresh football culture and atmosphere."
"I am happy to join the club. Coach (Marcello) Lippi has moulded the team into a strong side over the past couple of years and I am now a member of it. It is just a few months since I came here but I am feeling as if I have played with the club for many years."
Re-uniting with Lippi
Upon his emergence during his early days Gilardino had been likened to both Filippo Inzaghi and Christian Vieri. In his prime he struck 25 goals for Parma to earn the Serie A Footballer of the Year award, before winning the UEFA Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup with AC Milan in a majestic 2007. But it was the FIFA World Cup title at Germany 2006 that he cherishes most, a success which he achieved under none other than Lippi. In fact, it was the Italian manager's advice that eventually persuaded Gilardino to leave Italy for China.
He said: "Coach Lippi helped me to make the decision. I was so lucky to be a member of his World Cup winning team at Germany 2006 and our relationship is close. He told me what a club Guangzhou is and I realised that it was a rare chance to join the team to achieve more successes.”
In the eyes of Gilardino, Lippi is a symbol of triumphs. In fact, his international success began under Lippi who handled Gilardino his first national team call-up during a FIFA World Cup qualifier against Norway a decade ago. He notably scored in the 1-1 draw against USA at Germany 2006, and provided the assist for Alessandro Del Piero's match-sealing goal in the 2-0 semi-final defeat of the hosts en route to the global title.
"It is without doubt that Lippi has been a winning coach for many years," he remarked. "He won all the major championships in Italy and took us to the World Cup. After moving to China, he led Guangzhou to successes in Chinese Super League, FA Cup as well as the AFC Champions League. He has changed the image of Chinese football. In a sense, I have come here aiming to achieve further success under him."
*Italian attacking duo *The Chinese move also sees Gilardino re-united with former Bologna and national team team-mate Alessandro Diamanti, with whom he is forming C-League's most popular foreign line-up. With Diamanti pulling the strings in midfield, Gilardino has quickly found his feet with his new team, scoring five times in twelve appearances to leave Guangzhou on course to win their fourth successive domestic title.
"The re-meeting with him (Diamanti) makes me so happy," he continued. “We were team-mates before, but we have yet to win a title together. Now the chance is up for grabs. We are both glad to work together and we will strive to help Guangzhou to more championships."
Guangzhou are, indeed, on the very verge of winning the season with a draw against nearest contenders Beijing Guoan on Sunday at home enough to seal the championship with a game to spare. For Gilardino, it is a moment that will neatly wrap up a memorable debut season.
"We are leading (Beijing) by six points so the match is important. We should retain the league title. I am expecting my next season here to be greater. Because Lippi is a mighty coach that makes nothing impossible and we can always draw inspiration from him.”