Bora Milutinovic urged Chinese players to move to top European leagues during his two-year tenure as national coach between 2000 and 2002, believing it would assist their development. It is a common refrain from coaches who come to the region, however a dissenting voice is that of former China PR and Manchester City defender Sun Jihai.
“The local league is the key for any Asian country to develop because this is the platform where the youngsters emerge and realise their potential,” Sun told FIFA.com in a recent exclusive interview. “With China having failed to qualify for the past two World Cups, it is even more important for us to focus on our league.
“A decade ago our clubs were serious title-contenders going into any Asian competitions but today it is hard for us to progress beyond the group stage in the AFC Champions League. We need to rebuild our lost credibility and lay foundations for the future.”
Despite his belief in the domestic competition, Sun remains arguably the most successful overseas-based player China has produced over the past decade. He was among a small group of trailblazers when he became the first Chinese to play in England, signing for Crystal Palace in 1998 alongside former China captain Fan Zhiyi.
After a one-year spell he returned home, winning two consecutive C-League titles with Dalian Shide before moving to Manchester City to begin a seven-year stint. Sun remains one of Asia’s best performers in the English Premier League, having made 123 appearances for Manchester City across six seasons from 2002-08.
“It was not easy to maintain such a high level of performance during those years," he continued. "The competition for starting places was always ferocious and to win your place requires not only ambition and self-confidence, but also ability, commitment and hard training. When I look back, I am glad that I did my job well.”
Many Asian players have seen European moves end up in failure with language and culture barriers invariably a major issue. While admitting he is not exceptionally talented in speaking English, Sun said it was his personality that helped him to adapt to a new environment.
“I'm quite open-minded and easy-going," he smiled. "I am always ready to embrace new opportunities. I may not speak English fluently and sometimes I made my team-mates laugh by choosing the wrong word, but I made up for this with my understanding and co-operation so I could feel more comfortable there than some of my continental peers.”
Sun played a key role in helping China qualify for their only FIFA World Cup™ in 2002. Under Milutinovic, the east Asians dominated the final qualifying round by booking their place in Korea/Japan with a game to spare, with Sun making a major contribution.
The defender attracted immense attention going into Ch'ina's opening match at the finals against Costa Rica when he crossed paths with his Manchester City colleague Paulo Wanchope. But his FIFA World Cup ended in disappointment after succumbing to injury in the opening match after just 26 minutes.
“It was a pity that my hopes of a memorable campaign ended abruptly, but the match still figures prominently in my career as for any player," he said. "To play in World Cup is the ultimate honour.”
Sun went on to figure in China’s next two attempts to qualify for the FIFA World Cup where they bowed out in the third qualifying round on both occasions. After returning home to play with Chinese Super League side Shaanxi Chanba in 2008, he arrived at the conclusion that a strong domestic league is the key to future international success.
“Eight years ago we had three players in the English Premier League, with me at Manchester City, while Li Tie and Li Weifeng were at Everton. But with our local league on a downward spiral, our overseas success did little to help the national team. Now Brazil 2014 beckons and we can only go through the hard Asian section to qualify when we make our league one of the continent’s best,” he concluded.