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Best Chinese football players of all time

Fri 14 May 2021 | 13:30

Chinese football has had some great players in its history, in this article of SportMob, we take a look at some of the greatest Chinese footballers of all time.

Football has been one of the most widely supported sports in China. This game as played today was introduced in this Asian country in the early 1900s and is currently the most popular team sport in China, followed by basketball. China was acknowledged by former FIFA President Sepp Blatter as the inventor of football 5000 years ago, as it bears some similarity to ts'uh Kúh, an ancient Chinese ball game.

Chinese football is booming at the moment, with an ever more competitive league, the signing of players established in elite football, a national team that aims to compete on a level playing field with the best in the world, a subject in schools that want the youngest to progress in the sport, and the construction of thousands of playing fields throughout the country.

Best Chinese players in football history

Throughout its history, Chinese football had some great players who managed to amaze millions of football fans in the big Asian country. In this article, we want to take a look at the history of Chinese football and introduce you to the best Chinese football players of all time, stay tuned.

Li Fusheng

The first player in our list of

best Chinese football players of all time

is Li Fusheng, who happens to be one of the most capped players in the Chinese national team. The former goalkeeper of the China national football team started learning football when he was just 13 years old. Seven years later, Fusheng joined the Chengdu Military Region football team while he was 20 years old, and two years later he switched to play for the Bayi football team.

Between 1975 and 1984, Fusheng played in many matches for his club and thus managed to establish himself as one of the legendary players of the Chinese football team. He played his first match for the China national team in 1976. In the eight years of playing for the Chinese national team, he participated in many tournaments including the sixth Asian cup and played a total of 119 matches for his country. While he was just 31 years old, Li Fusheng decided to hang up his boots and later became the coach of the Bayi football team, however, his coaching career did not last long.

One of the Li Fusheng’s best moments during his career was in the

World Cup

qualifiers on October 18, 1981. At that time, the Chinese team played against the powerful

Kuwait

team at home and saved a Kuwait’s penalty. It became a classic shot in the history of Chinese football. This save was even included in the elementary school textbooks, which shows the status and influence of Li Fusheng in the history of Chinese football. He will always be remembered as one of the

best Chinese soccer players ever.

Wu Lei

As one of the best Chinese football players of all time, Wu Lei is among the most talented players in his country. Wu debuted at the age of 14 years and 287 days, setting the record for the youngest player to play professional football in China. He is best known for his dribbling, shooting and some spectacular goals, earning him the nickname "China's Maradona". Wu plays with a desire to score goals. He often moves into the opponent's penalty area from the flanks and looks for a quick finish. Furthermore, despite his comparatively small size of 1.73 m, he is strong with his head and has proven this with several goals.

Wu Lei commenced his football career at a football academy called Genbao Football Academy. He took up training in 2006 with the junior club Shanghai Dongya, which changed its name to

Shanghai SIPG

in 2015. He was promoted to the first team in 2008 and then made his League One debut in their ranks. During his debut season, he became a core player for the Shanghai club. He won the League One championship with Shanghai SIPG in 2012 and was promoted to the Super League. In the Super League, he made his debut on 8 March 2013 in a 1:4 away loss to Beijing Guo'an. During the 2015 season, he won the Chinese vice-championship. He won the Chinese league title in the 2018 season.

Following much speculation about his move to Europe, something that had been expected for quite some time, Wu Lei moved to the Catalan club

Espanyol

on 28 January 2019. Indeed, the club, which has a Chinese owner, had been monitoring the striker for quite some time. Lei had other offers from the old continent but chose to go with the Spanish club. Details of the deal, such as salary and contract duration, were not disclosed.

Wu Lei scored his first goal in his new club's shirt in the team's 3-1

La Liga

victory over

Real Valladolid

. The player scored his team's third goal and made history as the first Chinese player to score in La Liga in its 90-year history, thus establishing himself amongst the best Chinese football players in history.

Jia Xiuquan

One of the players in our list of

best Chinese football players of all time

who had a career as a manager after his retirement is Jia Xiuquan. From 1980 to 1993, Jia played for Bayi, Partizan, PDRM FA and

Gamba Osaka

. As a player for Bayi for most of his career, he won the Chinese national championship twice. In 1983, 1984 and 1986, the Chinese Football Association voted him the best player of the league three times. During his only season with Partizan (1988/89), Jia won the Yugoslav Football Cup with his club. The last two seasons of his career were spent in Osaka, where no trophies were won.

Jia made his debut in the Chinese national football team in 1983 and played fifty-five international matches in nine years, scoring nine goals. He participated with China in the 1984 Asian Championship, where they reached the final (losing 2-0 to Saudi Arabia). Following the competition, Jia was named player of the tournament. He also represented China in the 1988 Olympics. In 1992, he was called up for the third time to the national team for the Asian Cup, in which China finished in third place. By the time he retired, he was considered one of the best Chinese players in football history.

Following Jia's retirement, his former team Bayi offered him the chance to join them as a coach. But Jia's arrival did not help the team rise from the bottom of the standings. The next club Jia joined as a manager was the newly formed Shaanxi Goli, a team that started at the bottom of the Chinese football league system and made it to the second division in 1997. This achievement by Jia caught the attention of the China Football Association, which offered him a junior national team in China, but his time with the team did not bring it success in any serious tournaments.

Li Jinyu

Another striker in our list of best Chinese football players of all time is the famous Li Jinyu. Li started his career in 1997 with the Liaoning Shuangxing team. The team changed its name to Liaoning Tianrun in 1998 and Li was runner-up in the Chinese league. He went on loan to French AS Nancy of Division 1 in 1999 and played 6 games there in the 1998/1999 season. After that, he returned to Liaoning, now bearing the name Fushun. During the 1999 season, he again became Chinese runner-up with the club.

The club was already called Liaoning Fushun Tegang in 2000 and Li won the Chinese Super Cup with them. For the 2002 season, Liaoning played as Liaoning Bird and for the 2003 season as Liaoning Zhongshun. In the 2002 season, Li was the winner of the Chinese Golden Boot. He left for the Shandong Luneng Taishan team in 2004. There he spent 7 seasons. During this time he won 3 Chinese championships with them (2006, 2008, 2010) 2 Chinese Cups (2004, 2006) and the Chinese League Cup (2004). He also received the Chinese Golden Boot in 2006 and 2007. In 2010, he ended his career.

Having played in the 1997 FIFA Youth World Cup, Li was immediately promoted to the main national team and made his debut on 1 February 1997 in a friendly against the

USA

(1-1). Later, he was eventually included in the Chinese national team and featured in several unsuccessful World Cup qualifying matches. His most notable success was silver at the 2004 Asian Cup, where he was a key player in a team that reached the final before losing 3-1 to Japan. After China played their qualifying matches for the 2007 Asian Cup, coach Zhu Guangxu stopped calling him up for the tournament. He believed Li's level of play was not high enough to include him in the squad.

Fan Zhiyi

The first player in our list of

best Chinese football players of all time

to play in the English league, Fan Zhiyi began his professional football career in 1994 in the local team Shanghai Shenhua. From the very first season, he was the key player of his club. During the three and a half years spent there, he played 99 league matches, in which he scored 31 goals. In 1998 he moved to the English club

Crystal Palace

. He also played in the starting eleven there. He transferred to Scotland's Dundee F.C. in 2001 for £350,000. Later that year he was voted Asian Footballer of the Year.

He was loaned to Shanghai Zhongyuan Huili for six months in March 2002. After Fan returned from the loan he started playing for

Cardiff City

. After one season there he was not able to get into the starting line-up. Therefore, in 2003 he returned to Asia to Hong Kong Rangers. While there, he spent half a season playing in 9 matches. From the 2004 season, he started to play in his homeland, namely at Zhuhai Zhongbang. He was a starting player there. A year later he returned to his former club, where he finished his career as one of the

greatest Chinese footballers of all time

.

Fan played his first match for his country's national team on 22 August 1992 in a 2-2 draw against North Korea. The same year Klaus Schlappner called him up to the national team for the Asian Cup. At that tournament, the Chinese took 3rd place and Zhiyi himself played in 5 of his team's matches. Four years later he was again in the squad for the next Asian Cup. Velibor Milutinović called him up for the next Asian Cup in 2000. Two years later he was called up for the World Cup. There they took the last place in their group and Fan played in 1 game (lost 0-2 against Costa Rica). In total, he played 109 times in the national team.

Gu Guangming

One of the few players in the list of best Chinese football players of all time to play in Europe, he was regarded as a very talented young player and joined the Chinese Jia League club Guangdong Hongyuan in 1976. In 1979 Gu won his first league title and was promoted to the national team at the end of the year. He was named to the national team for the 1980 and 1984 Asia Cups. In the latter, China reached the finals where they lost 2-0 to Saudi Arabia. Gu was also a qualifier for the 1982 and 1986 World Cups.

He fractured his right shin in a home game against Beijing Guang in 1985 and was out for almost two years. In 1987, he returned to action in Germany with Darmstadt 98 in the second Bundesliga as one of the first Chinese footballers to play in a European professional league. He made his debut for the club on July 22, 1987, in the match against Saarbrücken, replacing Rafael Sanchez on 34 minutes. He scored his first goal for the club shortly before the final whistle for a 2-0 win. During his five seasons with Darmstadt in a total of 108 games, scoring eight goals.

Following his career as a player, Gu became manager. He was manager of Guangzhou Sunshine in the latter half of the 1990s and was the manager of Guangzhou Evergrande from 2006 to 2007. He is considered by many football fans and pundits to be one of the best Chinese football players in history.

Rong Zhixing

Rong Zhixing is one of the oldest players in our list of best Chinese football players of all time. He was born on a cruise ship bound for India in 1948 and returned to China from India with his family 5 years later in 1953. He first started playing football at the youth ranks of Guangzhou, before joining the Guangzhou Worker in 1964. After spending two seasons there, he joined the

Guangzhou

team, before eventually joining the Guangdong team. He played there for 13 seasons, before hanging up his boots for good.

In 1972, he was called up to the Chinese national football team. In the national team, he has played many matches in different positions such as winger, midfielder and other positions. He was praised for his "Aspirational Style" in China at the time and was considered to have high sports ethics. Rong had some superb skills on the field and a good style of playing with full respect for his opponents. For his good ethics and also great skills as a footballer, he will be always remembered as one of the best Chinese soccer players ever.

On February 27, 1983, Rong Zhixing played a farewell match at the Guangdong Provincial People's Stadium. Although it was the Lantern Festival that day, more than 20,000 fans still came to the stadium to watch the game and say goodbye to one of the

best Chinese players in football history

. The game was co-sponsored by the Guangdong Football Association and the "Football News", and the Guangdong team was playing against the Chinese youth team. Rong Zhixing wore the No. 11 jersey in the game and scored a goal in the second half.

Sun Jihai

He is the only player in our list of best Chinese football players of all time to ever play for

Manchester City

. Sun began his football in Dalian Wanda in 1995 and played his first match with them on May 28 of the same year. Following three successful years in the club, he signed for Crystal Palace in the English Second Division, along with Fan Zhiyi. These two players became the first Chinese footballers to play in an English league. He debuted for Crystal Palace when they lost 0-3 to Bury in their English League Cup away match.

By 2002, Sun had signed for Manchester City for a fee of £2 million. In October of the same year, Sun became the first Chinese to score in the Premier League when he scored the first goal in their 2-0 win over Birmingham. At the beginning of the 2004/2005 season, Sun injured one of his ACLs in a tackle by Chelsea striker Eiður Guðjohnsen, preventing him from playing for the rest of the season. After recovering with the help of a strict diet prescribed by his father, he was back again in Manchester City's starting line-up.

Following Sven-Göran Eriksson taking over the Manchester City coaching job, Sun has had less and less playing time as he has been replaced by Vedran Ćorluka at right-back. During the summer of 2008, Jihai was sold to Sheffield United after Mark Hughes took over the Manchester City coaching job. After a season in Sheffield United, he returned to his country, playing for different teams, before retiring in Beijing Renhe. Between 1996 and 2008, Sun Jihai played a total of 80 matches for his country, establishing himself as one of the greatest Chinese footballers of all time.

Zheng Zhi

One of the still active players in our list of best Chinese football players of all time is Zheng Zhi. He commenced his career with Liaoling Chuangye and then joined the Shenzhen Jianlibao squad in 2001. He finished fifth in China's top tier in his first season with the club. Following a runners-up finish in 2002, where Zheng became Chinese Footballer of the Year for the first time, and a fourth-place finish in 2003, they went on to win the championship title in the newly created Super League in 2004. By 2005, Zheng had joined league rivals Shandong Luneng Taishan. The club reached 3rd place at the end of the first season.

He celebrated his second championship title in 2006 and won the cup in the same year. In addition, Zheng was named Chinese Footballer of the Year for the second time. During the 2006-07 winter transfer window, Zheng made the move to Europe, joining then English Premier League side Charlton Athletic on loan. They finished 19th and were relegated. In the following season in the Football League Championship, he was one of the key members of the team and they finished in eleventh place. Charlton was relegated to England's third tier in the 2008-09 season.

Following this, he was signed by Celtic Glasgow. For the Scots, he made his debut at the Old Firm against Glasgow Rangers when he scored the penalty to make it 1-2. In 2010, he signed for the Chinese club Guangzhou Evergrande and still plays for them at the age of 40 years old. As one of the

best Chinese football players in history

, between 2002 and 2019, Zhi played a total of 108 matches for China national team, scoring 15 goals.

Hao Haidong

The next player in our list of best Chinese football players of all time is Hao Haidong, who happens to be one of the most famous of them too. Hao launched his professional football career at Bayi FC, where he played between 1986 and 1997, playing 48 matches and scoring 19 goals. He enjoyed his best period at Dalian Shide, where he played from 1997 to 2005, scoring 78 goals in 130 games and winning 9 titles. His performance made him known as the "Chinese Alan Shearer", in a reference to the legendary striker of Newcastle United and of the English National Team.

However, in January 2005, when he was 34 and at the end of his career, Hao declared his interest in playing for a club outside his country, and Dalian Shide released him from his contract in appreciation of his services to the club.

Sheffield United

, then in the English Second Division, made an offer of just one pound and signed the striker, who was, however, hampered by injuries. He only played one match for the Blades in the FA Cup, in January 2006, against Colchester United. Feeling that he would not have other opportunities, he decided to retire from the game.

With 41 goals in 107 matches played between 1992 and 2004, Hao Haidong is the top scorer in the history of the Chinese national team, He participated in the 2002 World Cup, and although he was the team's leading player, he failed to avoid elimination in the group stage and did not score in any of the matches. He will always be remembered as one of the best Chinese soccer players ever.

Lee Wai Tong

Lee Wai Tong, simply one of the best Chinese football players of all time, is often hailed in his native country as the greatest footballer in Chinese history for his achievements, including winning several Far East championships with the national team; he was also captain of the national team in its first-ever Olympic tournament in 1936, held in Berlin. In addition, he had a highly successful club career, playing predominantly for South China and helping the club earn a reputation as the most successful team in Hong Kong history.

Lee Huitan got his start in football with South China, where he quickly proved himself to be a very talented striker and was included in the first team in 1922 at the age of 17. Born in Hong Kong, Li played for the Chinese national team, with which he won the Far East Championship Games in 1925, 1927, 1930 and 1934, and in 1936 he captained the national team that competed in the Olympic tournament in Berlin.

Following his retirement from the sport, he became a coach and worked successfully predominantly on the coaching staff of Chinese Taipei, where his main achievement was winning the Asian Games in 1954. He will always be remembered as one of the best Chinese footballers ever.

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