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Cao Yunding – Shenhua’s promising joker in the pack

Cao Yunding

One of the very few positives to come out of Shanghai Shenhua’s 2011 season has been the emergence of midfield playmaker Cao Yunding. Whilst perhaps not making as obvious an impact in his first season as fellow promising youngster Feng Renliang did last year, Cao Yunding’s contribution at Shenhua has arguably been greater compared with Feng’s debut year. A pint-sized play maker, Cao’s vision and range of passing has stood out in a league badly lacking creative players.

He made his debut for China’s Olympic (under 23) squad this season, and recently scored his first league goal for Shenhua against Jiangsu. It may seem a facetious comparision, but with his game-changing passes, excellent close control, ability to create chances out of nothing, and diminuative stature, there is a mild Maradona-esque quality about Cao Yunding. At any rate, your correspondent believes Cao has been Shenhua’s stand-out player this season and should be elevated to the Chinese national team without delay.

Early days

Cao Yunding was born in Shanghai in November 1989. According to his profile on the official Shenhua website, he’s 174cm tall, which appears to be a rather generous measurement. Nicknamed “Surf boy”, he’s the squad’s chief prankster according to the profile, and is a huge admirer of former Manchester United legend Paul Scholes.

Interested in football from a young age, in 2000 Cao joined the Gen Bao Football Academy, run by  Xu Genbao, a former boss of Shanghai Shenhua and the godfather of the Shanghainese professional football scene. The Academy is based on Chongming Island, a rural area of Shanghai municipality and the young Cao had a somewhat regimental lifestyle at the base, up at 7am everyday and lights out at 9.30pm each night. The Academy is located in a remote part of the island without any major retail facilties nearby. According to a piece on Huodong interactive encyclopedia, Cao found life at the geographically-isolated Academy tough at the beginning, his family were unable to afford a laptop computer for him, and he had little to do outside of football except read books, watch DVDs and play video games with his fellow trainees. He later admitted that training to become a fully professional player would entail a great deal of dedication and hardship along the way.

Turning pro

Cao representing China at youth level

In 2006, Cao turned professional, joining Shanghai East Asia, the club which owns and operates the Gen Bao academy. At that time, East Asia were playing in China’s 3rd tier Yi League, and in his first season, Cao become the youngest player to score a goal in the Chinese league system, at 16 years and 242 days. He played an integral part in the Chinese Yi League winning squad of 2007 which saw Shanghai East Asia promoted to the second tier China League.

He established himself as one of the most promising young midfielders in the league, and a key player for East Asia, due in no small part to great goals such as those scored in a 2-1 victory in 2009 over Nanchang Bayi and against a win over Guangdong Rizhiquan (see videos below).

Cao represented China at the AFC under-19 Championship held in Saudi Arabia in 2008, scoring a goal in a 6-0 routing of Tajikistan. During the tournament, he lined up alongside defenders Wu Xi and Qiu Tianyi, who would later both play alongside him at Shanghai Shenhua. That same year, also appeared for his country as China finished fourth at the Qatar International Friendship Tournament, an annual youth competition.

Breaking into the Chinese Super League

With his performances of a consistently high quality, speculation mounted and it was only a matter of time before Shanghai East Asia’s star midfielder moved to a bigger club. That duly happened in February this year when Shanghai Shenhua agreed a 2 million RMB deal (Euro 234,000) deal to sign Cao. By co-incidence, he already had a connection at the club in the shape of his uncle, who works as a member of Shenhua’s backroom staff. However, Cao’s performances would soon cast off any suspicions of nepotism.

He made his debut for Shenhua in their second game of this season, away to Liaoning. Although the Hongkou side went down 1-0, Cao did enough to make his home debut in the following match, against Shenzhen. Ironically, the game was played not at Shenhua’s home stadium Hongkou, but at Shanghai Stadium, home base for Cao’s former team Shanghai Easst Asia. In such familiar surroundings, Cao impressed and cemented his place as a first team regular, starting in almost all games for his new club so far this season.

His good form for his club saw him moving up through the national youth teams. He made his debut for the Chinese under-23 Olympic team this year, but in somewhat inglorious circumstances. In his second appearance he was sent off for a flying tackle (see video below) during the under-23 side’s controversial 3-1 loss to Oman which saw the team crash out of qualifying for the London 2012 Olympic tournament. This uncharacteristic sending off was further evidence of the psychological pressure which leads otherwise talented players to make careless mistakes when playing for their country – Cao has only been booked once all season for Shenhua and not been shown any red card whilst playing for his club.

Cao Yunding's impersonation of Mr Pringle, taken from his weibo account

Making a name

Despite being one of Shenhua’s most dangerous players, and certainly the squads most creative player, it took Cao a while to score his first goal for Shenhua. That finally came last month against Yanbian in the CFA cup (click for video) . He didn’t wait any longer to break his  league duck – several days later in a 3-2 defeat away to Jiangsu Sainty, he scored what is one of Shenhua’s best goals of the season – a superbly worked 1-2 with Yu Tao and then Luis Salmeron saw Cao Yunding find the net with a wonderfully cool finish ( see videos below).

Since then Cao has emerged as one of the most creative players in the Chinese Super League. It’s generally accepted that China lacks creative people in all fields and walks of life, due to an education system heavily focused on rote-learning. This has also been highlighted as one of the Chinese national squads biggest short-comings. It’s interesting then, to look at Cao Yunding’s personality.  He told the Chinese sports media when joining Shenhua that “I’m a person who sometimes lives in his own little world, looks quiet on the outside, but I have my own way of looking at things and I have a lot of self-belief.”

Looking at his weibo which features Cao wearing a comedy moustache and a post that asks “is this like Mr Pringle?”, in reference to the cartoon gentleman featured on the packaging of the well-known snack food, Cao Yunding certainly seems to have an active imagination. Perhaps there is a connection between this and his creative and imaginative play on the field. Could Cao be the first in a new generation of creative Chinese players able to “think outside the box” ? Your correspondent thinks so and reckons Cao Yunding has the mentality and ability to go all the way and become a Chinese soccer great.


Cao scores for Shanghai East Asia against Guangzhou Rizhiquan in 2009.


A great solo effort for Shanghai East Asia against Nanchang in 2009.


Cao Goes close at Hongkou stadium this season with a great run against Tianjin’s defence.

The curse of representing China strikes again: Cao sent off against Oman

A fantastic first ever-league goal for Shenhua, against Jiangsu

A leading international commentator on Chinese football frequently quoted by the world's top media. Offers piercing and resolutely honest insights into the bustling crossroads where football, society, economics and politics meet in contemporary China. Based in Shanghai since 2005, observer of the Chinese game since 2000.



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