Guangzhou Evergrande defender Zhang Linpeng will turn 24 in two weeks time, and will do so with a world of opportunities at his feet over the next couple of years. Tall, powerful and technically sound, Zhang has perhaps more chance than any of his countrymen of making an impact in European football in the years to come. Indeed, he may just be China’s best player at present. However, he still has much learning to do if he is to fulfil that potential.
I wrote about Zhang for ESPNfc recently, and the response was overwhelmingly in agreement—he can represent China in some of the best leagues in the world. However, he will not get that opportunity should he fail to learn from recent mistakes. As a lacklustre Evergrande fell to a 3-2 defeat against Urawa Reds in Japan on Wednesday night, the Genbao Academy product saw red in the final minutes for a moment of stupidity.
Having tussled with Japanese forward Shinzo Koroki on the touchline, with the Urawa player allegedly pulling his hair, Zhang responded by running back to Koroki and barging him to the floor. Yes, Koroki shouldn’t have pulled his hair, but it was a response that was only ever going to bring a dismissal, and, doubtless, a few games on the sidelines. Indeed, had he not been dragged away by teammate Dario Conca, the situation may have developed further. He had lost control, and now it is Evergrande who will potentially play important knockout fixtures without a key player. His sheer stupidity in the final moments of the game could have a major effect on their season.
In Japan it was greeted with a “here we go again” response—the Chinese are wound up and have resorted to violence. It’s a somewhat unfair stereotype of Chinese football, but one that is all too frequently proved right. On-field (and arguably off-field) discipline remains an issue on too frequent a basis—as indicated by the several suspensions already handed out this Super League season for violent conduct. Zhang, himself, is now a repeat offender on this front, having missed the last four games of the 2012 league season for kicking out at an opponent in defeat to Qingdao. That mistake could easily have cost his teammates the title, as he played no further part in the league campaign.
It would seem then that China’s Sergio Ramos, as he is affectionately know, has also picked up the Spaniard’s love of a red card. Such blatant acts of violence, though, will see increasingly harsh punishments until he learns to cool his temper. Evergrande assistant manager Massimiliano Maddaloni defended the player post-match, saying: “Zhang’s response to the foul was a bit fierce, maybe it was a bit over the top. He needs to keep control of his emotions. However, I don’t think that his actions deserved a red card.” It was noticeable, though, that Maddaloni—with Lippi having been dismissed—was quick to give the player a public dressing down as he left the pitch. It is unlikely, therefore, that the response will be quite so polite behind closed doors.
There has been talk of Zhang becoming a future captain of China, and there is no doubt he is a leader on the pitch for Evergrande. He is passionate, confrontational and fully committed to his side’s cause, but he must learn that there are limits to his passion. At 24, the excuses being peddled out in the Chinese media of him being “young” are pushing the limits of acceptability. Zhang has 25 international caps, he is a twice Super League winner and must now learn that, to earn responsibility and career progress, he must meet certain expectations.
The player himself showed refreshing honesty in fronting up to the media post-match, having reportedly been in tears in the dressing room. Zhang admitted: “I was a bit impulsive and didn’t control my emotions. The punishment from the referee was fair. I did this and I must bear responsibility. I hope that I can remember this lesson. I didn’t think about further punishment at all. Regardless how many games I will miss, I will learn from this.” While there was some criticism of “underhand tactics” from the Japanese side, regarding the pulling of his hair, Zhang must learn to cope with close attention from opponents.
He is talking the right talk, but he can now only prove himself over a period of time on the pitch. Most around the club speak in glowing terms about the young defender and truly believe he is destined for great things in the years to come. If he can learn to keep cool under pressure, then he may just prove them right.
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