There has been a lot of debate about whether Zhang Yuning’s loan signing for Werder Bremen, via West Brom, is mainly about footballing or commercial reasons. Whatever the answer, Zhang is just the latest link in the chain joining Chinese and German football.
China-Germany footballing ties run deep. In 1975, the West German Olympic side were one of the few Western teams to play in Mao’s China. They lost 1-0 to Guangdong but gained revenge five years later when they beat the Cantonese at Yuexiushan. China also visited West Germany in this period of thawing international relations, playing three matches there in 1978 on their first tour to Western Europe.
Whilst the national team was taking on a broader array of international opponents than ever before, there were still tight restrictions on individual Chinese players representing foreign clubs. It took until 1987 for the first mainland Chinese player to play professionally abroad when youngster Xie Yuxin moved to Zwolle ’82 in Holland. Compared to the previous absence of international transfers, this sparked something of a rush on Chinese talent. National team captain Jia Xiuquan and striker Liu Haiguang both joined Partizan Belgrade in 1988. Gu Guangming was already playing in Germany by this time.
Diminutive winger Gu Guangming was a star for Guangdong and China in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. He toured the UK with China in 1979, was part of the team that narrowly lost out to New Zealand for a place at the 1982 World Cup and scored twice in the 1984 AFC Asian Cup where China came second. He broke his leg in 1986 though and it looked like his career was over.
However, Gu applied to the German Sport University Cologne and, after receiving approval from the vice governor of Guangdong, moved to Germany later that year. After recovering from injury, Gu played for a local amateur side where he was spotted by Klaus Schlappner. Schlappner – much more of him later – had just taken over at SV Darmstadt 98 and persuaded Gu to join him in 1987. It was a move that Gu would not regret. The winger racked up over 100 appearances for Darmstadt in the German second division over five seasons. That Gu went from someone who thought his career was over to become the Chinese player with the most experience of playing abroad (at the time) is truly remarkable.
Klaus Schlappner and the second wave
In 1992 China plucked Klaus Schlappner straight from the German second division to become their first foreign manager. Under his guidance, China finished third in that year’s AFC Asian Cup but couldn’t qualify for USA’94. Schlappner was sent back to Germany and, in time, some of his former players would join him. In another important development, the Bundesliga began to be shown on Chinese TV in 1995, helping it to develop an early following in China.
After returning to Germany, Schlappner again became manager of SV Waldhof Mannheim. He didn’t last long but retained enough influence to persuade the club to sign Yang Chen on loan from Beijing Guoan in 1998. Yang swiftly stepped up to Eintracht Frankfurt and became the first Chinese player to appear in the Bundesliga. It didn’t take him long to become the first Chinese goalscorer in the Bundesliga as he opened his account in his third game, a 1-1 draw at Borussia Mönchengladbach. The striker had a successful time at Frankfurt and was voted Chinese Footballer of the Year in 2000. After four seasons and 21 goals for Frankfurt, Yang played for second tier side St. Pauli in the 2002/03 season before returning to China. His five season stay matched Gu Guangming’s and outlasted a clutch of players who arrived around the millennium.
Xie Hui was the most successful of these, joining Aachen mid way through the 1999/2000 season. Xie had played over 100 games for Shanghai Shenhua and his loan move was reportedly facilitated by Schlappner. The striker made an immediate impact as he bagged fourteen goals in the second half of the ‘99/00 season. His performances dipped the following season though and after a short unsuccessful spell at Greuther Fürth he was back in China. Xie returned to Germany in 2008 to play for his third second tier club, SV Wehen Wiesbaden, but played only five games.
Zhang Xiaorui joined his compatriot Xie at Aachen for a five game spell in 2001. By this time, former Beijing Guoan captain Zhou Ning (Mannheim, with a little help from Schlappner again) and experienced international striker Li Bing (Offenbach) had also played in the German second tier. At the other end of his career was seventeen year old Li Tiantian who was at Mannheim in 2001/02 but returned to China after injury.
The longest serving
Beijing Guoan and China international midfielder Shao Jiayi was the next to move to Germany. After impressing in the 2002 World Cup, Shao moved to second division 1860 Munich in early 2003. Handed the number eight shirt for good luck, Shao stayed in Bavaria until the summer of 2006 when he was signed by Bundesliga side Energie Cottbus. While at Cottbus he became the second Chinese to play and score in the Bundesliga. Shao adapted well to the Germany and learnt the language, whilst his on pitch performances made him a well-known name in the relatively small city of Cottbus. Shao dropped down to MSV Duisburg for half a season before leaving Germany in December 2011, almost nine years after he arrived.
The most recent
Beijing Guoan’s Zhang Xizhe left China to much fanfare in December 2014. Sadly for him, the closest the young midfielder got to the Bundesliga was sitting on Wolfsburg’s bench and he was back at Guoan in time for the second half of the 2016 season. Those who thought his move was more about off-field than on-field reasons seemed to have been proved right.
Zhang Xizhe is not the only current CSL player to have spent time in Germany though. Hebei’s Zhang Chengdong played for second tier side Eintracht Braunschweig in 2012/13. Meanwhile, Shandong’s Hao Junmin had a season and a half in the Bundesliga but only played 14 times for Schalke 04.
Two way street
The traffic is not all one way, although not many Germans have appeared in the CSL. Jörg Albertz was the first, spending two seasons at Shenhua in the early 2000s, where Carsten Jancker also played in 2006. Most recently, Mike Hanke played for Guizhou Renhe. Plenty of Bundesliga sides have followed in the West German Olympic side’s footsteps and played in China. Hamburg faced both Guangzhou Evergrande and Guangzhou R&F in 2014 for example. Youth development has not been overlooked either; Bayern Munich operate football schools in Qingdao and in Shenzhen.
It seems that Zhang Yuning will not be the only Chinese playing in Germany next season. It has been proposed that a Chinese U20 side joins the south-western section of the German fourth tier but the plan has had a mixed reception. Whilst Li Bing’s old team Kickers Offenbach are in favour, ironically Mannheim (associated with Schlappner, Yang Chen, Zhou Ning and Li Tiantian) are opposed.
The background to the plan is a ‘comprehensive agreement’ signed last year between the Chinese and German governments. This aims to promote the growth of football in China, including through training players, coaches and referees. As part of this, Xi Jinping joined Angela Merkel to watch a match between German and Chinese kids on the eve of the recent G20 summit. This high-level cooperation is nothing new though. Xi previously watched a kids match in Berlin in 2014 and joint Chinese-German football forums were held in 2011.
Zhang Yuning is following in some illustrious footsteps by choosing to move to Germany. It is up to him to make sure he is more than a footnote in the wider story of China-Germany footballing ties.
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