“A good sword needs grinding to sharpen its edge.” This well-worn Chinese proverb holds particular relevance for China PR striker Yang Xu. The Shandong Luneng front man endured a torrid season last year, where injuries and a lack of form limited him to a handful of chances before he found himself demoted to the reserves.
"Looking back, I owe thanks to this special period as I learned useful lessons,” Xu said, judging his trials with an impressive sense of perspective. “I am now aware that there is no shortcut to success, only hard work. I knew that the chance would slip away if I didn't try to grasp it.
"It was a time when I began reflecting on the past and thinking about the future, which is why now I cherish the playing opportunities better than ever."
Through hard work and determination, the striker fought his way back into the groove. His six goals in this year's AFC Champions League - despite Shandong's early exit - placed him among the tournament’s top scorers. Meanwhile, in the Chinese Super League the striker has registered five more to help see his side sit third in the table.
An all-round forward
"People say that I am now at the peak of my career," the 28-year-old told FIFA.com. "But for me it is through tremendous efforts that I have reached this level. Last season I under-performed with an injury; I was sent to the other club on loan; I was sidelined and spent a long period in the reserve side.”
Xu’s eye-catching showing in China's opening 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifier against Bhutan displayed he has certainly rediscovered his scoring touch, hitting a hat-trick and setting up another as they overwhelmed the hosts 6-0. His international tally now stands at an impressive 17 goals, leaving him as the second top-scorer of Alain Perrin's current squad - just one shy of Gao Lin.
With his strong, imposing style up front, Xu's recent performances have seen him likened to China's all-time scoring-great Hao Haidong. "I have been repeatedly asked this question recently," continued the softly-spoken player. "My answer remains the same: Times have changed.
"We are beyond the period where a single great player can symbolise an era. In the past, we had the time of Hao. But today the team comes first and we need a group of good players to take China's football to a new level."
World Cup dreams
A product of the renowned Dongbeilu Primary School from the footballing city of Dalian (with notable school-mates including national team goalkeeper Wang Dalei and former AFC Women's Player of the Year Ma Xiaoxu), Xu exploded onto the international scene at the 2004 AFC U-16 Championship, scoring three goals at the tournament and helping China lift the trophy. That victory secured progression to the FIFA U-17 World Cup in Peru.
"We entered the youth competition as Asian champions but only then did we realise how strong our global opponents could be," Xu recalled on his debut FIFA tournament. "It broadened our vision from the continental to the world stage. We learned we have our work cut out if we are to compete against the world's best."
A decade later and the chance of another FIFA competition is beckoning with China having already taken their first steps on the road to Russia 2018. For Xu, it could not be a better opportunity to return to Asia's final qualifying round for the first time since 2002. Squaring up in group that includes Qatar, Hong Kong, Bhutan and Maldives, he feels they should be competing for top spot.
"To be honest, this group is a battle between China and Qatar," he said. "We should see Qatar as our chief rival from the start. But we can't underestimate the rest of our rivals and we should try to gain the maximum points against them."