Zheng Zhi has never shied away from a challenge. The 33-year-old Guangzhou Evergrande FC midfielder and captain has drawn inspiration from the hurdles he has faced during an exemplary career that is about to enter a new phase at the FIFA Club World Cup Morocco 2013.
A stranger to the competition until this year, Zhi has long been dreaming of performing on a global stage, as he told FIFA.com on the eve of his side’s quarter-final against Al-Ahly SC on Saturday.
“My father is a football fan and when I was young he would often take me to watch matches,” he said. “Chinese football was still an amateur game at the time and I must have been about nine or ten. But I said to myself one day that I would end up being one of those players that I’d watch on the pitch.”
More than 20 years have gone by since then and Zhi has fulfilled his childhood prophecy, taking his place on the pitch rather than in the stands and playing for Liaoning Youth, Shenzhen Jianlibao and Shandong Luneng before trying his luck in Europe.
Now back in China and a vital cog in the Guangzhou Evergrande midfield, he is the man the fans rely on to make the side tick, which is exactly what he did in contributing to three straight Chinese league titles, a Chinese Cup win and the club’s first ever AFC Champions League triumph.
A happy homecoming
This is the kind of success Zhi had envisaged when he returned home to sign for an ailing Guangzhou Evergrande after nearly four years in the English and Scottish leagues. Though his decision surprised everyone, he knew what exactly he was doing.
“We were in the second division when I joined,” Zhi said, recalling his return to his homeland in 2010. “But after speaking to the directors I had belief in the team and I was convinced they had the potential to reach for the top. I accepted the challenge and today when I look and see how far we’ve come, I can say to myself that I made a wise decision.”
His wisdom was reflected by the club’s unique feat in winning the second division title in 2010 and then capturing the first division crown in their first season back in the top flight, a crown they have held on to for the last two years.
“I never imagined that we could achieve so much,” Zhi said, who has made a telling contribution to his side’s golden run. “The experience I picked up at Charlton and Celtic has allowed me to develop my game. I’m trying to apply everything I learned in Europe for the benefit of my club and Chinese football in general.”
As the skipper of the first Chinese side to lift the AFC Champions League and qualify for the FIFA Club World Cup, Zhi is now facing another major objective.
Voted the AFC Player of the Year for 2013, he is adamant his side have the ability to acquit themselves well in Morocco: “Chinese football has come on a lot recently. We’ve had some very good foreign coaches come in and they’ve brought some high-quality players with them. Our club is the best example of that.
“Unfortunately, for the time being at least, it’s only the clubs who are benefitting from all that at the moment. If there were more Chinese sides who were capable of winning the Champions League apart from Guangzhou Evergrande, then it would really help the national team.”
As China’s captain, and having spent more than ten years playing for his country without tasting much success, Zhi would like nothing better than to see the national side prosper.
“I have quite a lot of regrets about it really,” he explained. “I’ve never really won anything with the national team after all this time, and our best performance came when we reached the final of the AFC Asian Cup in 2004.”
A veteran of three failed bids to qualify for the FIFA World Cup™, Zhi added: “It’s not over yet, though. If I’m still playing for my country at the age of 33, then it must be for a very good reason. I still believe we have what it takes to win a trophy or reach the World Cup, and while I’m still able to do so, I’m going to give everything I’ve got to my country make that happen.”
As the Chinese proverb says, “He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own”. Judging by that little piece of Oriental wisdom, Zheng Zhi is more than entitled to feel content with himself.