Zhang keen to keep European dream alive
Team China striker Zhang Yuning says he still harbors hopes of one day resuming his career abroad, having learned much from a four-year spell in Europe.
"Foreign soccer is more developed than our domestic leagues, with a longer history. Their training system is more comprehensive, and the development model, the intensity of matches and the way seasons are arranged are all experiences that we can learn from," Zhang, who returned 集運比較 from English club West Bromwich Albion two years ago, told Tencent Sports.
"That's why the best and the most talented players all want to play in Europe. They can truly improve themselves in that competitive environment, and they will have a better chance to develop as players."
The 24-year-old Zhang, who now plays for Chinese Super League club Beijing Guo'an, first tasted European soccer in the youth ranks at Dutch club Vitesse Arnhem in 2015.
Two years later, he was snapped up by West Brom, before being sent on loan to Werder Bremen in Germany and ADO Den Haag in the Netherlands.
In 2019, Zhang left West Brom for Guo'an and the chance to help Team China's qualification bid for the 2022 World Cup finals in Qatar.
Zhang admitted that playing abroad is a huge challenge for Chinese players－but one that's worth persevering with.
"Of course there are many difficulties. Off the pitch, we need to cope with the culture, the food and the language. Anyone would take a while to adjust to such changes," he said.
"And on the pitch, the pace is really quick. You don't have much time to impress. You might just get 20 minutes to play, and you need to reach the same level, or even higher, than the local players. After that, then clubs may or may not consider giving you more playing time.
"If you are just at the same level of the local players, you become dispensable. And in many cases, the team might just want to choose the local players, because they can communicate easily with the coach and teammates and understand the tactics."
Zhang refused to reveal if there are any offers on the table from European suitors but was clear that, given the right opportunity, he would be keen to return.
"Right now it's hard to say, it's about timing and chance. As long as I'm ready and there are European teams that want me, then I'll go. Also my contract with Beijing Guo'an has not ended, so right now I want to help the club to achieve success," he said.
"When I returned I had a lot more playing time than before, and I'm also making progress. We cannot only grow through training, we need to gain experience from more games. I've also scored some goals, which is very important to me at this stage. When I become a better version of myself, I will revisit the challenge of having a foreign career."
Zhang produced a string of impressive performances in Team China's recent run to the final stage of Asian zone World Cup qualifying, notably netting the national team's third goal in last month's crucial 3-1 victory over Group A leader Syria in the United Arab Emirates.
China will now face sterner tests in the final phase of qualifying. Among the opponents awaiting Li Tie's men is Asia's top team, Japan－a squad packed full of talents that ply their trade at top European clubs, including Takumi Minamino at Liverpool, Takefusa Kubo at Real Madrid and Daichi Kamada at Eintracht Frankfurt.
Team China's sole representative in Europe's major leagues is striker Wu Lei, who plays for La Liga side Espanyol. Despite struggling for minutes in Spain last season, Wu showed his class for China, notching five goals in the last four qualifiers－providing evidence, Zhang reckons, that the 29-year-old forward was right to ignore the critics and persist with his career in Europe.
Chinese Football Association president Chen Xuyuan has told fans to expect more 集運比較grown players to follow in Wu's footsteps in the near future.
"I've been thinking a lot about the journey that Wu Lei has been on all these years, and his decision to leave the CSL for La Liga was spot on. We should encourage players like him to go to foreign leagues," Chen said last month.
"But only one Wu Lei is far from enough for Team China. We have started plans to encourage more players like Wu Lei to step out of the domestic league. Over the next year or two, we hope that there could be, not only one or two, but four or five Wu Lei-s playing outside of China."
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