Despite China PR undergoing a turbulent period earlier in the year which saw Jose Antonio Camacho's step down and his assistant Fo Bo's appointed in his stead, a series of emerging youngsters have established their places in the new-look national team over the recent months.
Notable among them is on-song midfielder Sun Ke, who has featured significantly for both club and country since his international debut in March. Although he is likely to now miss Tuesday's 2015 AFC Asian Cup qualifier against hosts Indonesia due to pneumonia, there is no doubt that he will be spearheading the new generation with the national team for the years to come.
The 24-year-old right winger belongs to a rare breed. The Jiangsu Sainty man has made a name for himself through his tireless play, covering an average of 13,000 meters per match during the past season. For Sun, though, such brilliant fitness is elementary for an ambitious player with a natural tendency towards big-hearted performances.
"For me, the physical fitness and fighting spirit are what a player should have at least," Sun told FIFA.com. "Only on the back of these can a player build his skills, techniques and tactics. If you go on to the pitch physically prepared and with a strong desire to win, you can always put in brilliant performances."
*Tough contender *Unlike those footballers who inherit passion and love for the game from their fathers and brothers, Sun Ke drew inspiration from neighbouring children. "When I was a child of five I watched the other kids playing and I became obsessed with the game," he recalled. "So I began playing football. When I went to school I was selected into the school team. I made fast progress there and was signed by Jiangsu at the age of eleven."
His talents need no introduction considering his smooth promotion to the professional club at such a tender age. However, it was his tough characteristics as a teenager that shone through. Even till today, he is still remembered for his bravery during a national youth championship match when, after receiving medical treatment and stitches inserted in a head wound, he ran back on to the pitch and scored a headed goal.
We [China] are not afraid whoever we play against, and we respect all the opponents. We have learned how to play with a proper attitude.
His performances moved even his then mentor Zhai Guowei, a renowned youth coach of Jiangsu. "He was really, really hard and he gave his all," he remarked.
But he is by no means someone who just fights tooth and nail. He has made such big progress in technique that he graduated into Jiangsu's first team as a teenager in 2008. And he made an immediate impact by dazzling viewers through his penetrating moves, fast dribbling and dangerous passes.
"It is every youngster’s dream to be chosen in the first side," Sun continued. "And I was lucky I was the first to be promoted to the senior side from the youth academy. It was a chance I cherished. Every playing minute was precious for me so I worked hard and did my best to fit into the team."
His debut professional season was a major success, during which he made 22 appearances including scoring twice to help Jiangsu earn promotion to the Chinese Super League. He went on to figure significantly as his side took last season by storm with a runners-up finish, before helping Jiangsu edge Marcello Lippi's Guangzhou Evergrande 2-1 to claim the Chinese Super Cup title at the start of this year.
Sun's brilliant form didn't go unnoticed by then China coach Jose Antonio Camacho, who gave him his first international call-up for the last Asian Cup qualifier against Iraq in March. He started and played 75 minutes in his national team debut as China prevailed 1-0 at home.
Boosted by the initial success, he went on to showcase his talents in July's AFF East Asian Cup. Substituted on in the second half in the opener against Japan, he broke his international duck with an 86-minute equaliser as China came from two goals down to earn a hard-fought 3-3 draw. He was again on target in the next game against Australia, sublimely lobbing the goalkeeper and helping his side win 4-3.
"When I was sent on in the second half (against Japan), we were two goals down," he said. "But I didn’t think about the scoreline, or whether I would be able to change the flow of the game. I focused only on my play. I ran hard, tried to provide passes for team-mates. It was the joint efforts by all our players that saw us gain a point."
"Of course from the regional competition we have gained precious experiences and exposure. But the most valuable gain for me is self-belief. I am aware what we are capable of. We are not afraid whoever we play against, and we respect all the opponents. We have learned how to play with a proper attitude."
Armed with the newly-developed mentality, Sun Ke and Co. overwhelmed four-time south-east Asian champions Singapore 6-1 in a friendly in September, during which he scored his third international goal. Now the aim will to be build upon his early promise and be part of China's new guard.