Zheng Zhi, talisman behind Evergrande’s magnificent seven

Shanghai (AFP) – Zheng Zhi is a rare species in football: a Chinese player who went to Europe and made a success of it.

And even as a 37-year-old veteran he is still making history, winning the Chinese Super League (CSL) for a ninth time after his side Guangzhou Evergrande retained the title on Sunday.

The midfielder is a hero to Chinese football fans, winning 98 caps to date and skippering a side which is slowly improving under the Italian World Cup winner Marcello Lippi.

Football fans in Britain will remember the name too. 

Zheng played for Charlton Athletic from 2007 to 2009 and then had a season at Celtic, before returning to China with Evergrande in 2010.

After Evergrande made it seven league titles in a row at the weekend — Zheng also won the CSL with Shandong Luneng and Shenzhen Jianlibao early in his career — the skipper said he wants to keep going for as long as possible.

“When I first came to Guangzhou I did not expect I can serve here this long and bring these many championships,” Zheng said.

“The feeling of winning each championship is different, but for a team to win it seven times is an amazing achievement.

“I hope I can keep this sweet feeling. 

“Of course nobody can avoid the passing of time but I hope I can strive to keep going.”

He may be at an age where many players are hanging up their boots, but Zheng shows remarkably few signs of wear and tear.

The Guangzhou captain was injured when they wrapped up the title on Sunday but he has played nearly 30 times this season including all 120 minutes of last month’s Asian Champions League quarter-final home clash against Chinese rivals Shanghai SIPG.

And with the tie locked at 5-5 after extra time, Zheng’s ageing legs still had enough left in them to bury the southern Chinese side’s last penalty in the shoot-out.

Unfortunately for Zheng, a two-time Champions League winner with Evergrande, SIPG’s Yu Hai kept his nerve in front of the baying Guangzhou fans to put Shanghai into the semi-finals for the first time.

– ‘Like an 18-year-old’ –

Zheng started his career at Shenzhen Jianlibao — now Shenzhen FC — before moving to Shandong and then being snapped up by Charlton, initially on loan, in January 2007.

The London side were in the Premier League at the time and Zheng could not have dreamed of a bigger debut, coming on as a substitute in front of 75,000 fans at Old Trafford against Manchester United.

After a successful spell of nine goals and 67 appearances with Charlton, Zheng signed for Celtic.

Zheng played only a bit role with the Scottish giants in 2009-2010 and says that it was always his plan to return to China.

And he did, signing in the summer of 2010 for Guangzhou on a free transfer and embarking on a trophy-laden run that has included the 2013 and 2015 Asian Champions League titles, as well as the 2013 AFC player of the year award.

Like all high-profile footballers, he has his detractors and moments of controversy, but is widely regarded as one of China’s greatest-ever players.

This season the Chinese FA banned him for four games and fined him for failing to gather his side to shake the referee’s hand following a league defeat.

And in 2015, Hong Kong goalkeeper Yapp Hung-fai alleged that Zheng called him “a dog” during a contentious World Cup qualifying draw. Zheng laughed off the claim.

Lippi says he will continue to pick Zheng for China, and Guangzhou coach Luiz Felipe Scolari recently said: “He’s 37 years old but he’s like an 18-year-old and he works so hard.

“He is an example to everyone and it’s a pleasure for me to be able to work with such a player,” purred Scolari, who has worked with many of the world’s best players.

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