For both China PR and Zheng Zhi, 2002 marked a year to remember. The world's most populous nation sealed their maiden FIFA World Cup™ appearance while Zheng, then 22-years-old, was crowned Chinese Player of the Year.
A decade on and things have, however, changed greatly. China's bid for a return to the global extravaganza at Brazil 2014 ended in failure for a third time in a row, but Zheng Zhi reaped top personal recognition as one of three nominees for the 2012 AFC Player of the Year, alongside Iran's Ali Karimi and Lee Keunho of Korea Republic.
Although he was edged by Lee for Asia's ultimate individual accolade, Zheng was the first Chinese player to come so close since Li Tie in 2003. The feat ensured Chinese fans secured some solace with a happy ending to a largely disappointing year.
"I am not too surprised to finish in the top-three for the Asian laurels considering my club's achievements this year," a calm Zheng Zhi told FIFA.com in an exclusive interview after last Thursday's AFC Gala. "It came as a testament to the team's joint efforts and I owe my thanks to everyone at our club."
A fruitful year
Indeed, in a year during which the national team under-performed, the China and Guangzhou Evergrande captain stood out among his Asian peers largely courtesy of his brilliant club form. A versatile player deft in on-field every role, Zheng Zhi switched between playmaker and defender with Guangzhou as his side won the league and cup double, while also storming into the last eight on their AFC Champions League debut.
And it was his leadership throughout the season that helped earn him a place among the continent's best. Particularly, the former Charlton Athletic midfielder skippered Guangzhou to winners of a hard group which also featured 2006 winners Jeonbuk Motors and Japanese champions Kashiwa Reysol. Then a solitary-goal home defeat of FC Tokyo booked them a quarter-final showdown with Al Ittihad.
It was a meeting Zheng relished, having lost to the Saudi giants at the same stage with Shandong Luneng in the 2005 edition. Although Guangzhou maintained their thrust by scoring first in both legs, the experienced west Asians kept their cool to scrape through 5-4 on aggregate.
"We performed brilliantly in both legs but our lack of Asian experience cost us dearly," recalled the 32-year-old. "We opened brightly both away and home but the rivals were always able to get themselves back into contention. We scored quickly but conceded easily. This was a lesson we must learn."
Despite the near-miss, Zheng believes his side, under Marcello Lippi, can live up to expectations in their second foray on the continent next year.
"As a World Cup winning coach, Lippi impresses us most with his thirst for success," Zheng continued. "He has won almost everything with Juventus and he can emulate such success with us. He possesses a winning mentality because he takes every match seriously and is always keen to win. He inspired us to success."
Zheng’s class didn't go unnoticed and China coach Jose Antonio Camacho appointed him national team captain prior to Asia's third qualifying round for Brazil 2014 last year. And the No10 repaid the Spaniard's faith immediately, scoring the crucial equaliser against Singapore. China went on to win the game with Yu Hai sealing the 2-1 victory with a stoppage-time strike.
Zheng would start in the next three outings which they all lost. A narrow 2-1 loss in Jordan was followed by back-to-back 1-0 defeats against Iraq. "It was a pity we failed to progress to the next round, although we didn't play badly and we did create our share of opportunities,” he said. “I think we should gain more international exposure to become hardened.”
Awaiting China next is qualifying for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, which runs over a 15 month period from February until May 2014. And the draw is by no means kind for the Chinese, who have to battle it out against former champions in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as well as Indonesia for the two qualifying spots.
Despite the daunting task, Zheng sees the campaign as a rare chance for China to redeem themselves on the Asian scene. "It is always a top honour to represent the country so we will spare nothing to get a good result. It is perhaps too early to predict if we can conquer Asia, but at least we must fulfill the initial mission of progressing to Australia 2015.”