2012 marks the Year of Dragon in China, a year believed by the ancient Chinese to bring about great changes. While fans across the country enter this new year hoping for their teams’ football fortunes can be revived, the Beijing Guoan faithful are looking forward with excitement to the return of Shao Jiayi.
The Germany-based Chinese international has recently hitting headlines back at home after announcing his return. Having spent nearly a decade plying his trade with the likes of 1860 Munich, Energie Cottbus and current MSV Duisburg, the 31-year-old midfielder will head back home in February boasting the longest European spell among China's overseas-based stars.
Needless to say, it is long-awaited news for supporters in his homeland, particularly those from the capital, who still cherish Shao’s fine moments during his emergence in the start of the century with Guoan. For the player himself, however, it has proved to be one of the hardest decisions made so far to leave his adopted country, where he began his nine-year foreign adventure in 2002.
"It is never easy to leave a place where you have lived for so many years,” Shao told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “It was here that I spent my best playing years, I scored some memorable goals and I and my wife had our two lovely daughters. For us it is home away from home as everything has become so familiar: the football, living style, the friends and the fans.”
The call of home
A Beijing boy born and bred, Shao joined the capital side in 1999 and quickly broke on to the domestic scene as a burgeoning starlet. His rise to fame was meteoric after he featured in Bora Miluntinovic’s China squad in Korea/Japan 2002. The same year witnessed him make a high-profile move to Munich, joining compatriot and former Frankfurt striker Yang Chen in Germany.
Shao impressed Munich with his skills on the ball during the trial and, after a period of steady acclimatisation, he went on to show his set-piece skills in a home game against Cottbus in May 2003, opening the scoring on five minutes with a sublimely-taken free-kick. The highlights of his showings would also include the winning goal he scored against Hoffenheim for Cottbus in last season's German Cup, which sealed their place in the semi-finals, and a spectacular free-kick against Berlin United in a second division match last May.
“For me every goal I scored was unforgettable,” he said when asked to single out his most memorable goal in Germany. “I had good moments with each club I have played and of course there were disappointing times, but this is football. The key is that I have learned and improved throughout these years here.”
Despite his ups and downs over, Shao believes the goal he set himself at the beginning of his German expedition has been achieved. “My ambitions were to play in top European leagues and I have realised the dream in Germany. After playing in both Bundesliga and World Cup, I think there is little to regret as a player.”
Having said that, he acknowledges that his failure to play with a top-flight side partly led to his decision to return home. “I was happy to move to Duisburg this year and under the new coach Oliver Reck the team has made good progress. But still our promotion hopes look slim which means I may have to settle with the Bundesliga 2.
“Family is another reason,” he continued. “My oldest kid, six, is reaching the age to go to school, and our parents and relatives are all living in Beijing. Although we enjoy the life here, we decided the time was right to return home.”
Having represented China in Asia’s first FIFA World Cup in 2002, Shao was naturally left bemoaning their qualifying failures for Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, during which he figured prominently. He understandably kept a close eye on the national team’s performance during their recent stumble on the road to Brazil 2014, despite being sidelined from Jose Camacho’s line-up.
He said: “The result was a reflection of our slow development as we still suffer from a lack of young talent emerging. Although we are one of the world’s most populous nation, our footballing population is relatively low. And the trend seems to be there are less youngsters interested in pursuing a football career.”
In contrast to China’s disappointing showings on the global scene, Germany are among the most consistent performers in the FIFA World Cups, achievements which Shao attributed to their long-term efforts. “Germans not only boast the first-class football infrastructures but also they spare nothing in youth development and preparation. For most kids here, football is the number one sport and they are facilitated with the best schemes to develop. We should copy the German example in order to achieve football success.”
The interview was interrupted by a German fan, who held several dozen tickets asking for signature for himself and his friends alike. “They know I am leaving soon so I think they bid me a farewell this way,” he explained after satisfying his supporter with patience and friendliness. “This is indeed touching.”
His voice turned even softer when speaking of his Duisburg teammates. “They keep asking me these days if I will think of them after I return home. And who wouldn’t after spending so much time training and playing together? Regardless of my future, my days in Germany will remain a fond memory that I will cherish forever.”