Why young stars Zhang Yuning and Wang Shuang could spearhead China’s dreams of soccer domination

The pair, 19 and 20, starred for the men’s and women’s national teams this week

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 June, 2016, 3:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 June, 2016, 3:16pm

There was no Chinese Super League action this weekend but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t another big week for the beautiful game in the Middle Kingdom.

Jiangsu Suning coach Dan Petrescu was deemed surplus to requirements at the Nanjing side: the Romanian leaves the big spenders in third place in the CSL table and as the current holders of the Chinese FA Cup.

The former Chelsea defender will be replaced by reserve team coach Tang Jing or the recently recruited VP, Gong Lei, who was caretaker coach for Guizhou Renhe for a whole season back in 2013.

That was not the only major move for Suning, though. The retail giant which owns the CSL side and its affiliated sports group today announced that they had completed a deal to take a majority stake in Italian side Inter Milan in a move that is sure to please those pushing for Chinese football’s rapid improvement on and off the pitch.

Such improvement was on show in Qinhuangdao on Friday night when the Chinese men’s football team took on Trinidad & Tobago in an international friendly,romping to a 4-2 win. China’s teenage debutant Zhang Yuning scored twice to follow in the recent footsteps of England’s Marcus Rashford and Brazil’s Gabigol in introducing themselves to international football with a goal.

Zhang might well attract similar hype to those other teen strikers. The 19-year-old plays for Vitesse Arnhem in the Dutch top flight and had already made headlines in March when he became the first Chinese player to score in the Eredivisie, heading in an injury time winner over Roda JC. He also scored on the final day of the season in a 2-2 draw at Twente.

That pales into insignificance in comparison to his national team bow. The striker, who has revealed that he is a committed Christian, says his idol is former Ballon D’Or winner Kaka. As clean cut as his role model, you can imagine that Zhang will prove to be equally marketable in China’s rapidly expanding football market.

If the nation’s men’s team are thanking god for their new young hero, then the women’s team just reconfirmed theirs. Wang Shuang was once again integral as China strolled to a 3-0 win over Thailand on Sunday. The 20-year-old helped herself to two assists in the kind of match-winning performance that fans and teammates have come to expect from her.

Wang has already played 40 times for China and was earmarked as a star when she made her debut three years ago. Since then she has lived up to her burgeoning reputation, never more so than when she scored the winner against the world champions USA in their own backyard to end their 11-year, 104-game winning streak in what was Abby Wambach’s last game.

That she stole some of Wambach’s thunder in the American’s final game was appropriate. Wang is similarly talented and could go on to play as long as the USA striker who rewrote the record books before finally calling time on her career last December at 35.

Domestically, she has been in fine form for new club Dalian Quanjian in the Chinese Women’s Super League with her goals firing them to the top of the table. You can see why she was wanted by clubs in England’s Women’s Premier League but was ordered to remain in China by the national coach as she is so vital to the Steel Roses.

Time is on her side to secure a move to the elite leagues of Europe or the USA but for now she has the upcoming Olympics to concentrate on. After failing to qualify for London 2012, China’s women return to the fold and will want to prove they are a better side than their current Fifa ranking of 12.

To do that they will need to better their quarter-final showing at the Beijing Games and even go one better than the runners-up spots they claimed at the 1999 World Cup and 1996 Olympics. The late 1990s were the high point for China’s women’s team in the international arena, but the stage is set for Wang to shine even brighter this summer.

China might be making headlines for its heavyweight investment in the game at home and overseas but in a nation that expects success, the development of Wang and Zhang might prove priceless to the fortunes of football in the next decade. A gold medal certainly wouldn’t hurt.