Dabao, China's lucky star
Determination and form are invariably the key to getting the better of a tough opponent, but an extra ounce of luck sometimes proves necessary to come out on top in an intense battle. In this regard, China PR fans will look to their lucky star Yu Dabao when Team Dragon squares up against Qatar in Doha 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifier on Thursday.
The 27-year-old forward has, indeed, come to the team's rescue on more than one occasion. In a crucial qualifier for the 2015 AFC Asian Cup at home, Dabao came off the bench to score a stoppage-time match-winner against Iraq, a goal which salvaged a lifeline for the team as well as then coach Jose Antonio Camacho. Upon his return to the national team under new coach Alain Perrin in March, Dabao twice equalised as a substitute when China drew firstly against Haiti, and then against Tunisia in friendlies.
The Beijing Guoan goal-getter would continue his super-sub role by netting a brace as China came out 6-0 winners in Bhutan in the Russia 2018 qualifying opener, before being twice on target in the last 3-0 defeat of Maldives. Having proven himself as the team saviour with his timely goals so often, Dabao may have established his place as the team talisman in the eyes of the faithful but the man himself thinks otherwise.
"There is no such a thing as a lucky star," Dabao told FIFA.com before his departure to Qatar. "As a player you need to work hard and get prepared so that you can live up to expectations when the opportunity comes. I only earned my return to the national team this year and I owe my thanks to coach Perrin who gave me this call-up. I am glad I didn't let anyone down."
Portuguese learning Born to a football-mad father in coastal Qingdao, Dabao inherited the family passion for the game as a kid. He made so fast progress that he was recruited by the Qingdao youth team as an 11-year-old. His predatory talents didn't go unnoticed as he was called up the national side, with which he won the 2004 AFC U-16 Championship, booking qualification for the following year's FIFA U-17 World Cup. It was in the global tournament at Peru 2005 that Dabao earned his international fiery baptism.
"It was a nice experience to play in the youth World Cup," he recalled. "It opened our view because it was my first time to rub shoulders with some of the world's most promising stars. We learned as a player you need not only to work hard, but also to learn to use your head."
Dabao continued his development as he was signed by Benfica in 2007, and thus became the first Chinese player to ply his trade in Portugal. He would hone his skills with the Lisbon giants for two seasons before going on to play for the likes of Aves, Olivais Moscavide and Mafra on loan.
"I moved to Benfica at 18 and returned home as a 22-year-old," he added, reflected on his four-year spell in Portugal, "I improved my mentality, professionalism and techniques in the Portuguese league. I learned how to read a game. These experiences proved helpful when I returned to the Chinese league."
Qatar challenge China travel to Qatar aiming to bounce back having being held to a surprise goalless draw at home by Hong Kong. For Dabao, the match is one with no margin for error, if they are to maintain qualifying hopes for Russia 2018.
He said: "We mustn’t lose the match. We aim to win it away. And even if we don't play well, we must at least come away with a point. It is important that we maintain the pressure on our rivals in order that we can finish ahead of them to reach the last 12."
Qatar have historically proven to be one China’s biggest nemesis in FIFA World Cup qualifying. In the two sides' first qualifying meeting on the road to Italy 1990, Qatar came from a goal down to edge China 2-1. The theme continued in qualifying for France 1998 and South Africa 2010 with China's hopes again shattered by the Qataris. Despite the forgettable record, though, Dabao believes that his team can overcome history this time around.
"I have played against Qatar and for me, they are no better than us," he concluded. "Our team are in the ascendancy and the Qatar team are not as strong as they used to be. We suffered a couple of defeats against them before, but we lost due to psychological reasons rather than strengths. So we should prepare ourselves by feeling strong. We are not afraid of Qatar and we are capable of getting three points on their soil."