Goalscoring in the Chinese Super League 2009 followed a familiar theme: it was dominated by foreigners. With no Chinese players finishing in the top three on the scoring chart, the media and supporters could not help but reminisce about the legendary Hao Haidong.
For when the Qingdao native was in his prime, it was a different story. The Dalian Shide ace was the Chinese top flight's leading marksmen in 1997, 1998 and 2001, and won the nation's player of the year award twice. Moreover, Hao netted a record 41 goals for China PR in his 115 internationals between 1992 and 2004.
"It might sound clichéd that a talented player must also work hard, but to achieve greater success you need to put in more effort," the 39-year-old, who was renowned for his self-discipline, explained to FIFA.com.
It might sound clichéd that a talented player must also work hard, but to achieve greater success you need to put in more effort.
When Hao retired from playing in 2007, following an injury-ravaged spell with Sheffield United in England, he swiftly assumed another role within the sport he adores, becoming the general manager of Tianjin Songjiang, a third-division side in his homeland.
"Our target is gaining promotion to the second division this year," he said. "Our team consists largely of young players, so we focus on their development. Only with the youth developing smoothly can we secure a bright future."
An early start
Hao was only ten years old when he was recruited into the former Armed Forces FC, known as Bayi. It is something on which he still prides himself. "As a little boy I became a soldier and started my footballing career," he said.
"As all of us went through the fastidious nationwide selection, we were among the country's best. Furthermore, we were also lucky to have some of the country's best mentors to train us."
After cutting teeth with the club's junior side, Hao graduated into the first team and soon proved himself as a player of significant potential. He made a high-profile move to Dalian Shide in 1997, and helped them win five league titles in eight seasons before moving to England.
Hao also played a fundamental role in China's qualification for the 2002 FIFA World Cup Japan/Korea™. And despite the team's first-phase elimination, the lively forward demonstrated his class in their final game against Turkey, when he masterfully set up Yang Chen only for the latter to hit the woodwork.
"We showed we were capable of competing against the world's best teams in both physical and technical terms," Hao said. "As long as we keep working well, we can gradually bridge the gap in class that exists between us and the best sides."
Hao led his country's bid to reach Germany 2006 with some crucial goals, but they ultimately failed to progress into Asia's final round of qualifying after finishing behind Kuwait. It prompted the iconic attacker, then 34, to call time on his international career in 2004.
His void remains to be filled, with China's blunt spearhead unable to guide them into South Africa 2010. "The task of developing our young players is urgent, and I hope to pull my weight by taking the managerial job of Songjiang," Hao said.
With the 39-year-old's influence apparent, it was no surprise that Songjiang stormed into this season's third-division final competition in November, with Lian Chen topping the scoring chart on eight goals. Understandably, the 22-year-old was quick to pay tribute to Hao's guidance.
"He taught me a lot about what to do as a forward and I did take heart from his teachings," Lian said. "I hope to maintain my prolific form to help Songjiang earn promotion."
Clubs: Bayi (1986-97), Dalian Shide (1997-2005), Sheffield United (2005-07)
National team: 115 appearances (41 goals)
Honours: 5 Chinese league titles (1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002), Chinese Player of the Year (1998, 1999), 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan