When it comes to Chinese players overseas, we’re at an all-time low now. Hao Junmin no longer plays for Germany’s Schalke 04 and Shao Jiayi ended his nine-year German stint to play for his hometown club, Beijing Guoan. There are no players that could come close to resembling Sun Jihai’s overseas career with Manchester City and there are no Chinese players in the top five European leagues. Comparing the quality and number of overseas Chinese players with our South Korean and Japanese neighbours, China has a mountain to climb to reach their level.
Even though China doesn’t have a Shinji Kagawa or a Park Ji-sung playing top flight football overseas, there is one player still flying the flag for Chinese football in Europe. He is Zhang Chengdong, the first Chinese footballer to play and score in the Portuguese Primeira Liga.
Currently Zhang Chengdong plays for Beira-Mar, and he is the only Chinese player overseas that consistently features for a first team. However, much to many people’s surprise, Zhang didn’t want to leave China at all.
“I was forced to play overseas”, Zhang said in an interview. “In 2009, Liaoning (Zhang’s former club) wanted to sign a five-year contract with me, but the salary was really low. Also, there were some arguments during contract negotiations, so I left immediately. After leaving the team, I felt quite miserable and I don’t know what to do. I trained with the Hebei Provincial Team, and at the end, I came to Portugal in August to seek opportunities”.
When Zhang arrived in Portugal, he played for third-tier league’s CD Mafra. “Because during that time I wasn’t 23 years old, if I played in the Portuguese Primeria Liga (top-tier) or Liga Honra (second-tier), I need to pay the club a development fee. To be honest, I don’t even want to play for CD Mafra at that time. I thought the quality of the third-tier league is bad. But after I played a couple of matches, I realized the quality is actually pretty good. I couldn’t even play well during my first few matches. But now, I know that there are good Portuguese players, such as Simao, who once played in the third-tier league too.”
The Unintentional Success
No one has expected that Zhang would make his name in Portugal. On January 2009, Zhang was playing for CD Mafra in a cup match against heavyweight Sporting Lisbon. Zhang surprised everyone by scoring a hat-trick.
Although CD Mafra lost 3-4 to Sporting Lisbon, that match proved to be crucial to Zhang’s establishment in Portugal. “That game was my signature match, and after that game everyone knows there is a ‘China Zhang’ in Portugal. On the second day, I was overwhelmed with interviews.”
The Unintentional Goal
Currently Zhang has adapted to life in Portugal. He can speak basic Portuguese and can communicate with his teammates. Ever since joining Beira-Mar this season, Zhang started every league matches. His quality performances have attracted Bayern Munich and FC Gallen, but he decided to stay in Portugal because he wants first-team football. There are also rumours that Beira-Mar wants to extend Zhang’s contract (Zhang is on loan to Beira-Mar from CD Mafra). On January 21st, during the game between Beira-Mar and Maritimo, Zhang scored his third goal for Beira-Mar through an unintentional pass. “I was about to pass the ball to the forward, but I didn’t even expect it would end up in the opponent’s net!” Zhang mentioned. Although this goal didn’t bring a victory for Beira-Mar, it broke Zhang’s all-time goal record (Zhang scored two goals for Uniao Leiria last season).
Portugals’ Primeria Liga once attracted many Chinese players. Dong Fangzhuo, Wang Gang, and Yu Dabao featured for Portimonense, Beira-Mar, and Benfica respectively. However, due to different circumstances, the three players have returned to China, leaving Zhang Chengdong behind. As of today (February 10th), Zhang Chengdong has played 18 matches and scored three goals for Beira-Mar.
Let’s hope his performance will continue to improve as well as attracting more overseas opportunities for Chinese footballers.
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