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Kuala Lumpur: With continental club and international football currently in the midst of a few weeks’ break after a busy period of AFC Champions League, AFC Cup and FIFA World Cup qualifying action, the-AFC.com returns to its ‘Asian Icons’ series to look back at some of the stars from yesteryear, starting with former China international Hao Haidong.

Age: 47
Clubs: Bayi FC, Dalian Shide, Sheffield United
International appearances: 107 (41 goals)
Honours: Chinese league titles (1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002), Chinese Player of the Year (1998, 1999)

Part of the only generation of players to reach a FIFA World Cup with China, Hao Haidong’s place in the country’s footballing folklore is well secured. Only Li Weifeng has more than his 107 caps and no one even comes close to the former striker’s 41 international goals.

Indeed, with just five goals scored in eight FIFA World Cup Russia 2018 qualifiers to date, it’s fair to say modern-day China could do with a forward of the caliber of the legendary Hao.


How it began

It all started from a young age when, at 10 years old, the Shandong native joined Bayi FC, China’s Armed Forces team. After progressing through the youth ranks, Hao would go on to make his debut as a teenager before being handed his first international cap in 1992.

Later that year, Hao was named in China’s squad for the AFC Asian Cup in Japan and, after an impressive run which saw the national team advance to the semi-finals before defeat at the hands of the hosts, the forward bagged his first international goal in the 1-1 third-place play-off draw with the United Arab Emirates. China eventually prevailed 4-3 on penalties.


Dalian dynasty

In 1997, Hao joined Dalian Shide, where he would ultimately enjoy the most fruitful years of his career while being a key member in the club’s most successful period in their history.

The Liaoning-based team had won two of the previous three Jia-A League championships – China’s top division prior to the introduction of the Chinese Super League – but what followed was almost complete domination.

Hao won back-to-back league titles in his first two seasons with the club while also picking up China’s Player of the Year and Top Scorer awards on both occasions. After a trophyless year in 1999, a hat-trick of championships followed as, in his first six seasons at Dalian, Hao amassed an incredible five league titles.

Internationally, Hao was part of the China team that claimed the bronze medal at the 1998 Asian Games in Thailand, scoring twice before the East Asians were defeated 1-0 by eventual winners the Islamic Republic of Iran in the semi-finals.


Historic achievement

But the period Hao remains most remembered for is when he was instrumental in helping China qualify for the 2002 FIFA World Cup in Japan and Korea Republic, when the global showpiece was held in Asia for the first time.

Paired with the UAE, Uzbekistan, Qatar and Oman, China made light work of their qualifying campaign, winning six and drawing one of their eight fixtures to progress eight points clear of the second-placed Emiratis as Hao netted twice.

Hao then played in all three of China’s games in Korea as losses to Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey – the latter two finishing as champions and third respectively – led to an early exit. But, as the national side have since repeatedly found out, just getting to the tournament was a huge achievement in itself.


AFC Champions League bow

A year after the World Cup, Dalian would take part – and indeed excel – at the inaugural AFC Champions League, when they advanced to the semi-finals on top of a group comprising Korea Republic's Seongnam Ilhwa Chunwa, Shimizu S-Pulse of Japan and Thailand's Osotsapa FC. Hao netted four in a 7-1 victory over Osotsapa and a brace in a 3-1 win against Seongnam to lead the way in the scoring charts.

 

The goals did not stop in the semi-finals, as the striker bagged three over two legs against Al Ain, but it was the Emiratis who came out on top of a thrilling 7-6 aggregate victory before ultimately lifting the title. With nine goals, though, Hao was the tournament's top scorer by some distance.


AFC Asian Cup swansong

By the age of 34, Hao was still going strong and was part of the China team that reached the final of the 2004 AFC Asian Cup on home soil, scoring in the group stage win over Indonesia as the hosts advanced to the quarter-finals above Bahrain, Indonesia and Qatar.

Hao then opened the scoring in the 3-0 quarter-final win over Iraq in a game that saw Zheng Zhi also net two penalties as the old and new of Chinese football lit up Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium. The goal would prove to be the forward’s 41st and last for his country.

A penalty shootout victory over Iran followed a 1-1 draw in the semi-finals but it was arch nemesis Japan who ran out 3-1 victors in the final as China were denied the chance of lifting the continental title for the first time.


The latter years

At the beginning of 2005, after eight years at Dalian which also saw him win the Chinese FA Cup in 2001 and come runners-up in the Asian Cup Winners’ Cup the same year, Hao made a high-profile move to English Championship side Sheffield United.

However, injuries blighted his time in Yorkshire with Hao only managing one substitute appearance in more than a year in England.


The Hao name lives on

Fast forward more than a decade since Hao hung up his boots and China are yet to appear at another FIFA World Cup and face an almost impossible task to make Russia next year as Marcello Lippi’s team currently sit bottom of their group with just two games to play.

The good news for Chinese fans, perhaps, is that Hao’s son, Hao Runze, is already plying his trade with Spanish side Granada. The 19-year-old defender may not possess the goalscoring touch, but if he has even half the impact of his father then China could well be looking forward to a brighter future. 

Photos: Lagardère Sports