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Hong Kong internationals Festus Baise and Jean Kilama help fire Tianjin and Guizhou into big-money Chinese Super League

Hong Kong international players played a key role in a gripping promotion battle to the big-money Chinese Super League at the weekend, with Tianjin Quanjian and Guizhou Zhicheng ultimately earning promotion to the top flight at the expense of Qingdao Huanghai.

The final fixtures in China League One saw the three clubs – which all have Hong Kong players in their side – win their respective matches to finish level on 59 points but Qingdao were eliminated from the race to win promotion to the China Super League.

Tianjin, who thrashed visitors Meizhou Kejia 3-0, won the League One trophy with a better head to head record among the top three during the season. Guizhou beat home side Xinjiang Tianshan 2-1 while Qingdao scored a 3-1 away win over Dalian Yifang with Hong Kong international Godfred Karikari making one goal assist.

“I think the arrival of [head coach and former Italy international] Fabio Cannavaro in mid-season made the difference,” said Tianjin central defender Ng Wai-chiu, a former Hong Kong international.

“It was his personality, charisma and the ability of uniting the players that contributed to our eventual success. It’s a big day for the club.”

Big spenders Tianjin were considered hot favourites at the beginning of the season. Hong Kong international Jean Kilama, a naturalised player, joined the Northern China club on a reported monthly salary US$40,000. Ng said the club management offered a winning bonus of RMB 6 million for the team in each of their last six matches.

But after seven matches without a win, head coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo left the club in June, paving the way for the arrival of Italian Cannavaro, who stepped down as manager of China Super League champions Guangzhou Evergrande in mid-season last year.

Cannavaro helped bring Tianjin back into contention and ended up only needing a draw in their second last match of the season against Guizhou to seal promotion. However, they were upset 2-1 in that match by Guizhou, with the deciding goal came from a stoppage header by defender Festus Baise, also a Hong Kong international, a result that took the title race to the final day.

“I don’t how to describe my feeling right now,” said Cannavaro on saturday. “I have never come across such a spectacular moment in my career. I am over the moon.

“When I came here, Tianjin were ninth in the standings and 11 points behind the leaders and now we are the league champions. I must thank the players and the coaching staff as they are the ones who helped the club accomplish the pre-season target step by step, just like the construction workers who lay down the bricks layer after layer until the job is done.”

Guizhou team manager Li Bing, who was also a mid-season newcomer, paid tribute to the team spirit for their success.

“We don’t have many quality players but soccer is a team sport and thanks to our excellent team work, we could make it to where we are,” said Li. “I am from Guizhou and am working for a Guizhou team. I hope we can showcase the spirit of Guizhou when we start in the Super League next year.”