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WEF Exclusive: Yu Dabao talks playing in Europe & almost joining Evergrande

Last week, before China took on Holland in Beijing, Wild East Football sat down with Yu Dabao at the Chinese national team’s hotel. The 25 year old attacker was extremely comfortable and confident in addressing a variety of issues, including the differences between playing in Europe and China, his experience playing under Jose Antonio Camacho, his grasp of languages, and coming close to joining Guangzhou Evergrande. 

You are one of the few Chinese national teamers right now who has played abroad, how important was that experience?
It definitely was important. I went overseas when I was 18 and spent four years abroad. Because of those four years of training and match experience, when I came back to China to play in the domestic league it was much easier for me. Also, in terms of physical training, technical & tactical reading of a game, match readiness and thinking, I’m more in line with the overseas way of thought. When I came back to China, I always got on really well with foreign players and managers and it allowed me to quickly fit in with the team, for example when I moved to Aerbin, it helped a lot.

So other than the obvious language differences, what’s the biggest difference between overseas and the CSL?
I think players and leagues overseas are far more professional. They treat football as their job, everyday they put all their effort into their job. Outside of work, there are personal issues, family issues, but when you’re “at work”, you need to be completely focused. For those two hours in training, you are going as hard as you can, knowing that by going hard in practice, you can help your conditioning in games, will help you play even better. There will also be more opportunities for players to improve themselves. This is something lacking in China, efforts in practice aren’t quite there. Players that are already in the team know their position, they’ll think ‘I’m already a starter, I don’t need to do anything to make myself even better.’ Or the substitutes will think, ‘No matter what I do, I’ll be a sub, so it doesn’t matter how hard I practice.’ This is definitely a gap between China and players overseas.

Do you think you’ll have an opportunity to go overseas again?
I still have two years left on my contract, so when that is up we’ll have to see what the club thinks of me. If there is the possibility to go overseas, I’d like to take it. But at my current age, I’ll be 27 when my contract is up, at the point it would be very difficult. I’d like the chance, but for it to become a reality is not easy.

Aerbin has invested a lot of money in the transfer market both on foreign players and domestic ones like Yu Hanchao, Chen Tao, and the Dalian Shide players, but so far the results have been less than idea, is it because the team needs time to come together or something else?
From the start of the season to now we didn’t reach the club’s expectation, also external expectation. There are some problems in the side, including the problems with the manager at the start, including during winter training that had an impact. For the players, for the team, it was a blow, now we’re slowly getting on the right path. Now with the new manager, it will give the players some time to practice hard and earn their position. With the new manager, it’s a new page for all the players, through their efforts they can gain opportunities to play, for every player its a new start, everyone is equal. I hope that through these 20 days of training the team will have some changes and hopefully in the next half of the season we can get some good results.

How much do you know about the new manager?
Those of us with the national team only know about him through the media, we haven’t had a chance to meet. I hope that after I’m done with the national team, I can return to Dalian and meet him right away and adapt to his way of thinking. The transformations he can bring are very important to the team. Especially because there are three of us away with China, and Keita is away with his national team, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to get on the same page. I hope that from seeing the team in practice, as well as hopefully watching some video of past matches, he can find where change is needed.

Do you think Aerbin can get into an Asian Champions League position?
We’re moving in the right direction, we’ve found a new manager, the players will do everything they can as the season goes on. This year the club spent a lot, we hope we can bring them a good result. For the fans, we hope that we can develop as much as possible, last year was the same, we fell one win short in the last match, it’s regrettable we fell just short. This year, if we can get back in that spot, we’ll give it our all.

Last time you were with the national team, you scored in the last moments against Iraq, how excited were you and how important was that goal for you?
Actually, it wasn’t that important to me, but that match was crucial for the national team, for us as a team and for Chinese football as a whole. If we were to have lost that match, we’re in a difficult period now, so to win that match was very important, it was a result of the whole team’s efforts. We scored in the very last minute, it shows we never gave up, that I scored it was just a bit of luck.

Not many Chinese players have had a chance to play abroad, so few have your understanding. In Europe, the players and fans have a close relationship, but in China that isn’t the case, what causes the difference?
This goes back to what I was saying before, about the professionalism of the clubs, because at a real club, like the ones in Europe, they have a very solid setup. That includes every department of the club, there is a platform to communicate with the fans. At clubs in China, the players need to have a professional attitude. This is something that I think you don’t see enough in China.

You were in Portugal for awhile, how’s your Portuguese?
Portuguese, Spanish, English; I don’t have a problem with any of them.

So you can communicate easily with Camacho?
Yeah, sometimes I even serve as the translator.

Is that because, like the media reported, his translator had some issues getting ideas across, so you step in?
When the translator first arrived, he didn’t really understand Chinese football, he had no contact with it, now it’s better. If he has some problems, I’ll step in and help out.

What do you think is the difference between Camacho and Gao Hongbo?
I wasn’t in the national team that much under Gao. With Camacho, I actually played under him in Portugal, so I think he has a definite understanding of my skills. His practice style as well as his technical plans are based on foreign standards. But maybe when its applied to Chinese players, it’s harder, because he’s previously managed a number of strong teams, China is in a difficult situation now, finding a way to improve Chinese football is most important right now.

As a player, what do you think China can do to improve the situation?
I think the most important thing is not focus on us at the national team level, its most important to focus on developing youth football. China doesn’t place enough importance on developing youth football, instead they just focus on results at the top. We should look to Japan or similar countries, they focus heavily on youth football, from a young age they develop players. China doesn’t have enough youngsters playing, so it makes things hard for future development of Chinese football. I think that youth development needs to be a focus.

The media made it sound like you were very close to signing for Guangzhou Evergrande, but in part due to your parents not wanting you to move to the south, you ended up with Aerbin, is this true?
Yes, this was a factor. At the time I really wanted to go to Evergrande, I was hoping that through this chance I could develop my own skills. I like to challenge myself. But my parents’ health isn’t the best and I wanted to be closer to home. From a young age, I’ve always listened to my parents, in the end I respected their decision.

I understand that you see going to Evergrande as a challenge, but good players like Feng Renliang and Zhao Peng have gone there and hardly can get on the pitch. I was happy you went to Aerbin over Evergrande, if a top player like you went to Evergrande, even though you’d be able to practice with excellent players, it might be hard to break into the lineup and it hurts development.
Yes, well first off, players like Zhao and Feng might not be the best fits for Evergrande’s system, so they can’t get many starts. It’s not a question of their talent. This includes Yu Hanchao joining Aerbin this year, outsiders may think something about them, but it may just be an issue of the team’s playing style handcuffing the player. When I was considering Evergrande, they had Muriqui and Conca, both excellent foreign players, and to me, communicating with them wouldn’t have been a problem. I also think my playing style would have been a close fit for them, so I thought I wouldn’t have any issues joining Evergrande. I was confident I could find a place in the team, but in the end I went to Aerbin, I had to bear a lot of responsibility.

At the time I was the only national teamer at Aerbin, they also gave me the responsibility of being captain, so it gave me a chance to develop in a different way, to learn things at a different level. It helped me to mature, including to read the bigger picture of the match, it helped me to change in a lot of ways, my technical style, my thinking on the pitch, really many different ways. Although I didn’t join Evergrande, I developed a lot at Aerbin, just in different ways, but it was a definite help.

Who was your footballing hero growing up?
My favorite players were foreigners like Rivaldo and Zidane.

Which team did you support when you were younger? Did you watch Qingdao or a foreign team?
My dream when I was a kid was to play professional football. Growing up, I watched Qingdao the most. My thinking about going abroad came from as I played with the different levels of national youth sides, seeing the foreign players and envying them. I started to study languages in my free time, accumulating this sort of knowledge, then when I finally went abroad I had the chance to use it.

Brandon Chemers aka B. Cheng aka A Modern Lei Feng – is a name which may be familiar to many in the Chinese blogosphere. He currently serves as Editor-in-Chief for Wild East Football and is one of the lonely souls writing about Chinese football in English for the last 10 years. Chemers' credentials are second to none – his former blog focused not only on the fortunes of his beloved Beijing Guoan FC, but a multitude of other aspects of Beijing life. He’s deservedly built a reputation in the Chinese blogosphere as an insightful observer of not only Chinese football, but also the wider picture of life in modern China and its many layers. For WEF, beyond writing about Guoan, he often focuses on fan culture and the business of Chinese football.

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