A truly established star, Sergio Ramos is adored far beyond his country. But perhaps even the Spain and Real Madrid defender is unaware how iconic he is in the Far East, where Chinese fans have, for years, set him as the role-model for one of their hopefuls.
The player is Guangzhou Evergrande's on-song defender Zhang Linpeng, who has been likened to Ramos not only because of his physique, but also similar playing style to the FIFA World Cup™ winner. So often is he compared to the Spanish legend that the 24-year-old has been affectionately nicknamed Zhang-mos after Ramos.
For any young up-and-comers, it is undoubtedly an honour to be related to such a big name. Zhang, though, has someone else in mind as his idol, as he revealed in a recent exclusive interview with FIFA.com.
"Ramos is a great player, so it is encouraging to be compared to him by the supporters," he said. "But my favourite player is Manchester United captain Nemanja Vidic. He impresses me with his mentality, inspirational play, and his technique."
Leadership is, perhaps, the key reason why Zhang singled out the Serbian in preference to Ramos. It was also something which he first showcased during the 2008 AFC U-19 Championship, when he skippered China PR to the knockout stage as group winners, only to be edged out by Uzbekistan on penalties to a place at the FIFA U-20 World at Egypt 2009.
Aside from that, his deft interception, hard tackling, as well as marauding attacking runs, have seen him raise many eyebrows across Asia. In fact, he impressed so much in that campaign that Xu Genbao, his then mentor with Shanghai SIPG, predicted him to be the successor to former China captain Fan Zhiyi.
It was a view shared by even Fan himself, with the former Crystal Palace centre-back singing his praises. "He belongs to the sort of players which I favour," remarked Fan. "He possesses the necessary qualities as a good defender. He has a bright future."
Predictably, Zhang's emergence has since continued. He received his first call-up to the national senior side the following year, before starting in all three games as China won the 2010 East Asian Cup ahead of Korea Republic and Japan. "I thank coach Gao Hongbo for providing me with a chance," he said. “My confidence was largely boosted by winning the regional title. From then on I have felt I am capable of playing against any rivals."
Such self-belief, as well as his skills and experiences, has stood him in good stead since he joined Guangzhou Evergrande in 2010 in a season-high transfer fee. He would help the newly-promoted side to the title in their first Chinese Super League season, before going on to claim the next two under Marcello Lippi.
On the Asian scene, Zhang and Co stormed through to the AFC Champions League final this year, having reached the quarter-finals last season. With Guangzhou tipped by many to win the continental title over FC Seoul, Zhang revealed how the Italian manager has successfully moulded the side into a genuine force to be reckoned with in Asia.
He said: "Lippi is a world-class coach. He has a sharp eye if you are doing the right things. If you make a mistake or not train properly he will immediately stop you, correct you, and prompt you to work better again. He cares about the details very much."
An all-round defender, Zhang is deployed as a right-back with Guangzhou. As well as being a defensive corner-stone, his lightning moves up the flank provides Guangzhou with extra options in attack. He has scored four league goals for Guangzhou this season, while providing China with the assist for the match-winning goal against Iraq in a 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifier in March.
Zhang is, indeed, irreplaceable if Lippi’s side are to gain a satisfying result in the opening leg of Saturday’s Champions League final in Seoul. The vigorous right-back injured his right ankle in the AFC Champions League semi-final win against Kashiwa Reysol. As a result, he was ruled out of China's recent AFC Asian Cup qualifier in Indonesia which ended in a 1-1 stalemate.
Fortunately for Guangzhou his quick recovery means he is fit to tackle the K-League heavyweights. "It is no problem to play the final. I have won three league titles with Guangzhou and I am really hoping to scale new heights by winning the Champions League title.”