Ambition can be a cruel beast at times. It can be all too easy to possess an intense burning desire to achieve more and take the crucial next step in one’s life or career but, when the time comes, discover there is no viable exit route to pursue. For Chinese footballers, it is an all too common scenario that perhaps explains why so many would appear retired in all but name by the age of 28.
As a writer on football in China it is always one of the two questions people are keen to ask—”where will the first big Chinese star come from?” (The other being “why is China yet to develop as a footballing nation?”) While there are no potential Maradonas or Ronaldos on the scene at present, I am always keen to stress that there are talents who have the ability to succeed at a reasonable level in Europe—just as Sun Jihai, Li Tie and Shao Jiayi did a decade ago–but there is a major issue with player development.
Such players are few and far between, though, and the basic economics of the Chinese Super League—where top clubs have no fiscal necessity to cash in on assets—make a transfer nigh on impossible to consider whilst under contract. Even leaving a club under the Bosman ruling brings complications in itself in a country where maintaining good relationships with those high in organisations can be key to a successful future. It is a real and current dilemma for China’s best players.
Perhaps foremost among those who have outgrown the local football scene at present is Guangzhou Evergrande defender Zhang Linpeng. Recently named China captain, at least on a temporary basis, the 25-year-old is central to the plans of both his club and country both at present and in the long-term. Indeed, he may well be the only definite name on the teamsheet for international manager Alain Perrin as he plans for coming fixtures. At club level, not one player has played more minutes for the Asian champions this season.
But, Zhang has little left to achieve in Chinese football. He has now won three consecutive league titles in the colours of Evergrande and is on course for a potential fourth, while last November he was part of the first Chinese side to win the AFC Champions League in its current form. It had seemed a fitting time for him to take the next step in his career and follow the hordes of Japanese and Koreans to Europe, with rumours of a Bundesliga move circulating. However, nothing ultimately came to pass.
“There were no offers,” Zhang said, speaking to Wild East Football earlier this season. “I’m aware time is getting on. It is my dream and ambition [to play in Europe], but I can only keep working to try and achieve that.”
Yet, despite a continued desire to spread his wings and try a new footballing environment, Zhang’s prospects of doing so would appear bleak. Coach Marcello Lippi recently signed a new three-year contract in Guangzhou and has since stated that the right-back will not be sold under his watch. As perhaps China’s top performing player over the past two seasons, he is simply irreplaceable to the club.
“It was great for the club that Lippi was able to renew,” Zhang ventured, before repeating his motivations. “To be able to work with such a coach is a great opportunity and I can still learn a lot. I just need to take it one step at a time, but my ambitions have not changed.”
I just need to take it one step at a time, but my ambitions have not changed.
Zhang’s situation, though, perhaps explains the plight of China’s best players better than any other. Given the transfer fees on offer in the domestic game it would likely take a transfer fee of in excess of €5 million for Evergrande to even consider a sale and, even then, they have no necessity to take the money offered. In a league where seven of any starting XI must be Chinese and the talent pool is far from large, to sell a star player must almost be through necessity. They are largely irreplaceable.
Awareness of the large potential fee perhaps explains the lack of serious interest in one of Asia’s best defensive players. Known as “China’s Sergio Ramos”, the 1.85m tall defender is also a converted centre-back who has the technical ability required to play as an attack-minded full-back.
Per Opta statistics handed to (courtesy of @OptaJohan), we can see that only two players in the division have touched the ball more than Zhang this season (Wang Song and Liu Jianye), that the full-back finds a teammate with 37 percent of his crosses into the box–one of the league’s best–and is aggressive in his defending, making regular interceptions. With Evergrande’s width largely coming from the full-back positions, his forward bursts are key to their attacking threat as his tally of four assists and 16 chances created in 17 appearances would suggest. Yet, despite that, it has been far from his or Evergrande’s most convincing season to date.
“My form at the start of the year was not good,” he accepts. “I have been trying to return to my best level and fulfil my goals. Teams, both in the CSL and abroad, now know more about us and how we play. It’s been more difficult this season and teams are now better prepared for us.
“When you play against teams who are set up to defend, it’s more difficult. They are often camped in their half defending. Evergrande have been better than other sides at transitions, we are always looking to attack in the final third and sometimes can make more mistakes. Yet, we look to win the ball back quickly and then, when the opponent makes a mistake, we can exploit the gaps. I think this is where we have been better than the rest.”
Evergrande’s domestic supremacy, though, is currently looking far from clearcut, with Beijing Guoan just four points behind with a game in hand. Over the past six months, the Cantonese side have seen the departure of two heroes in Dario Conca and Muriqui, whilst high-profile signings Alessandro Diamanti and Alberto Gilardino are yet to fully accommodate for those losses. An important few months lie ahead for Zhang and his side.
There is still much reason to be positive. Evergrande are still in pole position to seal another league title and remain in the hunt for AFC Champions League glory which, in turn, would bring about a return to the FIFA Club World Cup. Meanwhile, from a personal perspective, it has also recently been revealed that Zhang and his wife are expecting their first child which could put on hold any exit plans.
In the past, Zhang has provoked criticism for his occasional lapses in self-control on the pitch, with the most well-known example a red card for a retaliatory shoulder barge on an opponent against Urawa Reds in early 2013. Yet, for all his often aggressive demeanour on the pitch, an image accentuated by his plentiful tattoos and solid physique, the Shandong native is a quiet and mild-mannered character away from the pitch and admits he sets himself demanding standards.
“I think, as a player, it’s important to give people a positive impression off the pitch,” he adds. “On the pitch as a defender, though, you have to be ready to hold your ground.
“I’m probably a competitive person in all areas of life, although I don’t really play other sports. I was very thin as a kid and developed later than many of my colleagues, so I was always unable to match them and perhaps worked harder for that reason. Fitness is key in football now. Of course it’s not everything, but in order to extend my playing career I guess I set myself high standards.
“I think I’ve matured since [the Urawa incident], or at least such an incident hasn’t occurred since. I can’t say that I’ve completely changed, though, so I still need to remind myself at times that I need to control my emotions when such incidents occur.”
I still need to remind myself at times that I need to control my emotions when such incidents occur.
Given his elevation to captain and senior centre-back for the national team under Perrin, it now looks likely that he will lead his country into the 2015 Asian Cup as China seek to restore some pride after recent decline. Zhang courted controversy with comments about the national team setup this year, but has since been entrusted with a leadership role and, thus far, looks at ease in the position. In terms of attitude and application, there is nobody more suited to the role.
Yet, for Zhang to take the next step in his career and fulfil his potential, a European move would seem the only option. His faults, which he admits are in “positioning and reading of the game”, are rarely exploited in China where his pace and strength allow for recovery. He needs greater tests on a more regular basis, as do China’s other leading prospects. The success of Evergrande has, in general, been a positive for Chinese football up to this point, but there comes a point where the development of the national game must take priority and clubs must give their leading lights opportunities to improve. Quite how that can be amicably achieved, though, is anybody’s guess. Until then, Zhang and his colleagues must continue to put their dreams on hold.
*Interview excerpts first appeared in Chinese on Hupu Sports, 20 June 2014.
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