Beijing: Even as China PR and Beijing FC stalwart Zhang Yuning celebrates the Lunar New Year, the centre-forward is focused on living up to expectations in the Year of the Ox.
Zhang is determined to play a part in China's bid to qualify for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and power Beijing FC to greater success, with the club having raised eyebrows with their commendable performance in the 2020 AFC Champions League.
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"I am past 23 years old in the Year of the Ox, so I am beyond the U-23 policy (a policy by the Chinese Football Association that requires each club to ensure U-23 players get playing time in domestic competitions)," the 24-year-old forward told FIFA.com.
"I have to compete for chances to play (with Beijing FC). I will work harder in both training and playing, making solid progress and not letting a day slip in vain."
It will be a crucial 2021 for China in qualifying for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022. Trailing leaders Syria by eight points, Team Dragon must rally and win as many matches as possible when the competition resumes if they are to progress to the next round. Despite the daunting tasks facing them, Zhang is confident that they can complete the mission under head coach Li Tie.
"Each of the remaining [four] matches will be crucial for us," he said. "There will be pressure. But I believe we are capable of good performances and we can achieve the results we want. Of course, the past lessons will be learned and we will spare nothing to do our job well."
There is a 12-year cycle in the Chinese lunar calendar with each year represented by an animal. As a result, people have their birth year return every 12 years. It isn't, however, seen as a time to celebrate as the birth year is believed to bring about challenges to overcome.
Born in January 1997, Zhang embraced his birth year in 2020, which was the Year of the Rat. While COVID-19 did cause formidable challenges for all footballers including him, Zhang did his best in turning the year into a fruitful one.
He scored six times and provided four assists as Beijing finished runners-up in last season’s C-League in Group B. On the continental front, he was twice on target, helping his side reach the quarter-finals of the 2020 AFC Champions League and putting in performances that established his place as one of the hottest prospects in China PR.
"Last season, both the C-League and AFC Champions League employed centralised formats due to the pandemic. It was a pity that we had to play in empty stadiums missing the fans' support but because the team stayed together throughout the competitions, our teamwork improved and the consistency of our performances was better.
"Besides, Beijing have star players like national team veteran Yu Dabao and Brazilian international Renato Augusto. I have learned a lot by training and playing with them."
In a sense, last year saw Zhang realised some of his early promise. A local product from Hangzhou Greentown, he emerged as a standout among his peers and he was made captain of both the national U-17 and U-20 teams.
In 2015, the then teenager began a four-season overseas adventure across Europe, plying his trade with the likes of Vitesse, West Bromwich Albion and Werder Bremen before returning home to join Beijing in 2019.
"My time in Europe helped me a lot in my development," he said. "I have improved both technically and physically. Particularly, I got tougher mentally. I have learned how to cope with setbacks and adjust myself properly."
At the national team level, he broke into the senior side in 2016. He made a dream start in his international debut, scoring twice and providing an assist as China PR defeated Trinidad and Tobago 4-2 in a friendly. He went on to start as the lone striker in a qualifier for Russia 2018 against IR Iran, with his performance earning the nod by the then Team Melli manager Carlos Queiroz. However, Zhang has yet to break his duck in a major international competition, an added motivation for him.
"I hope I can become an all-round centre-forward. I hope I can not only score goals but also become a fulcrum for the team by surging forward and making passes. Last year was a good one in terms of consistency in displays. But a breakthrough is still to come."
When asked about the goals for the future, Zhang stated that he is always striving to become a better player each day, inspired by his childhood idol Kaka.
"When I was a 10-year-old kid, I watched Kaka earn that year's FIFA Player of the Year award on TV. He always impressed me through his wonderful displays on the pitch. A great player like him, Kaka shows great personality off the pitch. He is the role model for all young footballers, including me."
Sources: FIFA.com, AFP
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