Roam through the multitude of football websites and it’s barely an exaggeration that a new player is linked with a move to the Chinese Super League every day.
Whether it’s a Brazilian who wants to swap the leagues of Eastern Europe for a new adventure in the Far East, or a veteran who wants to cash in at the end of his career, there’s always a new story unfolding.
Of course, few can deny that this is promising for the development of the beautiful game in the Middle Kingdom, but having a home-grown superstar would boost the game’s popularity more than any foreigner could ever hope to.
Someone who can be to football what Yao Ming was to basketball and what Li Na was to tennis. While many Chinese players have plied their trade abroad, none have really made a lasting impression.
Familiar expats include Sun Jihai, Fan Zhiyi, Shao Jiayi and Yang Chen.
SBV Vitesse’s Zhang Yuning could be the young talent to make the breakthrough for China’s new generation of talent, but there have been false dawns before.
At the tail end of 2014, the hope of a nation rested on the shoulders of Zhang Xizhe – China’s 2012 Young Player of the Year – as he swapped Beijing Guoan for Wolfsburg.
Fifty million people were expected to watch his first press conference on China Central Television. Some were quick to claim his signing was a PR stunt to grow Wolfsburg’s fan base in China, but having been previously linked with Celtic, it seemed as if several clubs had been scouting him for quite some time.
Wolfsburg had one of their best seasons that campaign, finishing as runners-up of the Bundesliga to qualify for the Champions League and winning the German Cup for the first time in their history.
For Zhang, however, it was one to forget. He returned to Beijing Guoan after just six months, failing to make a single competitive appearance.
There’s no question that it was going to take time for Zhang to adapt to the competitive nature of the Bundesliga, but perhaps he wasn’t patient enough to wait for his chance.
Last season China’s attention turned to Zhang Chengdong, also of Beijing Guoan, who was loaned out to Rayo Vallecano, having had previous spells in both Portugal and Germany.
While he got more game time than Zhang Xizhe and became the first Chinese player to play in La Liga, he made just four appearances for the Madrid-based club, only one of which that came in the league.
But young, aspiring Chinese footballers shouldn’t lose hope just yet. Not only is 19-year-old Lin Liangming playing under the tutelage of Santiago Solari for Real Madrid’s youth team, but Zhang Yuning, currently of SBV Vitesse in the Netherlands, is another youngster to keep an eye on.
Also 19 years old, Zhang signed for Vitesse from Hangzhou Greentown in July 2015, but only made his debut for the club in February. He scored his first goal just under a month later – a late winner against Roda JC Kerkrade.
By the end of the season he had made eight appearances and scored two goals, which subsequently earnt him his first international cap last month. He scored twice and assisted a goal in a 4-2 win over Trinidad and Tobago, before making his second appearance against Kazakhstan in a 1-0 loss.
Vitesse have a relatively small squad and rely heavily on loans from partner club Chelsea, therefore providing there isn’t an influx of players between now and the start of the season, Zhang’s chances of cementing a starting place in new manager Henk Fraser’s team are likely.
He’s doing himself no harm, either, having already scored in both of Vitesse’s pre-season friendlies.
Since he burst on to the scene in February, five of his six goals (friendlies included) have been headers, and he seems to possess the instinct of a goal poacher.
Time is certainly on his side, and with some luck and no small amount of industry Zhang could make the breakthrough for China’s new generation.