Zhang Linpeng, the next made-in-China footballer set to shine in Europe?

 

Even the idea that Chelsea were chasing Zhang Linpeng was enough to made numerous Chinese football fans ecstatic. Even some diehard Chelsea supporters in China could hardly believe that the club’s target had changed from the promising England international John Stones to the 26-year-old Guangzhou Evergrande defender.

Few would doubt Chinese fans’ passion on sports nowadays, nor would many within the industry of football neglect the potential of that lucrative market in the east. Tens of millions of Chinese football fans have long waited to witness a “Yao Ming” in European football, but this possible transfer seems almost unbelievable to most Chinese football fans.

Compared with their peers from neighboring Japan and South Korea, Chinese players have enjoyed far less success in Europe. Although the likes of Sun Jihai and Zheng Zhi might be still remembered by some loyal Manchester City and Charlton fans respectively, barely any other players from the most populated country in the world have left impressive footprints in their expedition to Europe. This might indeed be a proof that China has not produced much quality players in recent years, a cause that resulted in both their poor FIFA Ranking (79th) and their repeated failures to qualify for the World Cup (Their last appearance being 2002).

However, if you quickly scan the FIFA Ranking and locate the position of China, you may easily find some countries whose rankings were similar to China but still produce world-class players. For example, Montenegro (77) has neither qualified to European Championship, nor World Cup since its independence in 2006 but few would question if Stevan Jovetić and Mirko Vučinić could play in the Premier League. Likewise, Morocco (82) has also witnessed the likes of Marouane Chamakh, Younès Belhanda and Mehdi Benatia thriving in top-tier clubs.

That is to say, there is nevertheless some chances for Chinese players to succeed in Europe. But consider the language barrier, the cultural difference as well as the intensity of the top leagues, the odds might still be grim unless the following scenario happens – the best player joins a right club at a right time.

Let’s assume that in order to get Zhang, Mourinho and his team are making some serious bid to Guangzhou, are they making a reasonable move? The answer is yes.

Overall, Zhang is undoubtedly one of the best players in Asia. A quick and strong defender, he could either play right-back or center-back. He made his international debut at the age of 19 and has become cornerstone of both the national team and his club. He got his nickname “Zhangmos” several years ago, not only because of his facial resemblance to Spanish star Sergio Ramos, but also his brave, fearless style of play. His once-in-a-generation athleticism easily makes him outstanding among his Chinese peers. A natural weapon in set pieces, Zhang could also create threats from long distance through his powerful shots.

It’s never an easy job to be a defender in today’s Chinese league as all the teams have their best players bought from overseas. In another word, you will have to face forwards like Gyan Asamoah, Demba Ba, Hernán Barcos and Diego Tardelli, all of whom have the ability  to scare defenders in the Premier League. But Zhang has nevertheless proved his ability in these encounters. One thing to remember is that from an early age Zhang was able to hone his defensive skills against strikers such as Cléo, Lucas Barrios, Elkeson, Alberto Gilardino and Ricardo Goulart in training sessions, something that has almost certainly y aided his development. As such, he has been a key player in Guangzhou’s four consecutive league-winning campaigns and their victory of the AFC Champions League in 2013.

Zhang has dreamed to play in Europe for a long time but because of his vital role for the team’s defense, the club rejected all the offers in the recent years. Their former head coach, Marcello Lippi, once acknowledged Zhang’s potential to play in Serie A but persuaded him to stay put. An outgoing leader on the pitch, Zhang’s personality would help him communicate well with foreign coaches and teammates, something that most Chinese athletes had trouble.

Just like a coin has two sides, Zhang’s superb strength has prevented him to read the game with better wisdom. Sometimes he relies too much of his body to defend, rather than stopping the ball with accurate anticipation. However, it is not surprising because many of the world-class defenders will reach their peak at late 20s or early 30s. Even top-class defenders such as Sergio Ramos have to make last-ditch interceptions.

Another potential factor that may hamper his career development in Europe is his injury record. Putting Zhang to the starting line-up would be the no-brainer for all his coaches in Guangzhou Evergrande. However, he played only 72% (87/120) of all the league games in his last four seasons. Being a brave soldier before the goal means getting more collisions. Will he suffer more injuries in a more competitive league? Very likely.

But a bigger obstacle standing between Zhang and Chelsea is yet to be mentioned – the United Kingdom work permit system. Even if the London club did seal the deal, it is still impossible for Zhang to immediately play in Premier League because he is neither an EU citizen nor a player from one of the top 50 FIFA ranked national teams in the world. To get the work permit, Zhang will have to be loaned elsewhere in Europe for at least 6 months. Zhang has nonetheless expressed his desire to take an adventure. After all, representing China in Europe, even in a ‘second-tier’ league like Dutch Eredivisie, is simply beyond the imagination for most players of his generation.

At the end of August, South Korean Son Heung Min became the most expensive Asian footballer in history after joining Tottenham Hotspur from Bayer Leverkusen for £22 million. Thousands of miles away, Zhang Linpeng, whose name is yet to be a household name, is also longing for a childhood dream to come true. Now it is up to the Guangzhou Evergrande board to decide whether to tie a wandering heart or to let the world pay attention to their par excellence product.

Author Details

Chen Chen

Coming from China, I'm currently a PhD student studying sport management at University of Alberta, Canada. I have been an Italian supporter since my childhood. One of my biggest dreams is to have a tour to the pantheons of Italian football, such as Stadio Meazza, Stadio Olimpico and Stadio Artemio Franchi. Topics of my writings include football in society, football history, as well as my observation on football's development in China.

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