Zhang making a name for himself

Zhang making a name for himself

By Paul Williams

Determined.

It’s one word that perfectly describes China’s Zhang Jiaqi, a man who has known what he wants from an early age and who left China on his own as a 16-year-old to get it.

Zhang after signing with Le Mans

Zhang after signing with Le Mans

That goal was to play in Europe. Not just play in Europe, to make it in Europe. In one of Europe’s big leagues, and slowly it seems as though the now 21-year-old might be doing just that.

Born in Shenyang in Liaoning province Zhang has memories of growing up playing football from an early age after being inspired by French legend Zinedine Zidane at the 1998 FIFA World Cup.

“I started to play football aged nine because from an early age I liked watching football, playing with balls and just wanted to try it,” he recalled.

“My idol growing up was France’s star Zinedine Zidane. I loved him after watching the 1998 World Cup and just wanted to go and play football.”

Zhang knew that he wanted to play in Europe and when he was just 16 made the decision to move to Europe, on his own, to try his luck.

“I was 16 when I arrived in France. I came because, from an early age, my dream was to play football in Europe,” he told Asian Football Feast.

“I came to France together with my agent and he organised several clubs for me to go on trial with.

“However, even after I came to Le Mans on a two week trial I did not think that the club owners would want me to stay. I also understood that Le Mans is a club that develops young players and felt every aspect was suited to me, so I chose to come here.

“At the time I had many French clubs to trial with, but after coming here I felt it really suited me. The club’s scouts liked me and the owners liked me, so I stayed.”

Like every player when they first move abroad, especially one as young as 16, the early years were tough, especially when you don’t speak the language. There are plenty who would have chucked it in. But not Zhang.

“Of course there were times I wanted to return home,” he said.

Zhang makes a tackle in a game against SM Caen

Zhang makes a tackle in a game against SM Caen

“It was difficult when I first arrived because the language is not the same. However, since then, I have slowly got used to the environment here and my French is now much better.

“At that time I was a child, but these things meant little compared to my dream. At that time I just wanted to fulfil my dream and prove that I could play football in Europe.”

Over the last three or four years Zhang has progressed, moving from the club’s junior ranks to their reserve team playing in the Championnat de France amateur, the fourth tier of French football.

In 2011 he achieved a major milestone with the signing of his first professional contract.

While it might not be the highest level, it has given Zhang a good grounding and allowed him time in the system to develop his game.

While opportunities with the senior side have been few and far between, he is not in any rush to leave in the pursuit of more regular first team football.

“It’s not too bad, I guess. I believe that through hard work an opportunity will come soon,” he said.

“It would be the same anywhere. That’s to say, I have been at Le Mans for some time now and I am very familiar with it here. If a better opportunity were to arise then I would also consider it.”

Reports surfaced last year that strongly linked him with a move back to China to join Shanghai Shenhua alongside Nicholas Anelka and Didier Drogba. The reports suggested it was a done deal, but it never eventuated and Zhang stayed in France.

“I still wasn’t ready to go home because I want to play here for many years,” he recalled.

It might have been a good move with signs that his career in Europe might just be starting to take off.

After a breakout season in 2011/12, which saw him play 23 games and score three goals, his current season form has also been impressive. So much so that in recent months he has been called up to the senior squad, making his debut in early February in a 1-1 draw against Clermont.

In just his third game for Le Mans in Ligue.2 he achieved another major milestone, scoring his first goal in a 3-2 win over Niort. The goal, in the 80th minute, ultimately proved to be the winner. His next outing was also as memorable, but not for a good reason. Two yellow cards saw him sent off and it took him over a month to get his spot in the side back.

While that would suggest his form is good, the man himself has a different opinion.

Zhang in action for Le Mans

Zhang in action for Le Mans

“Personally, I think it’s (his form) ok. However, if compared with last year, I don’t think my performances are as good,” he said honestly.

“Because last summer I returned to the squad late, I did not have a full pre-season and it has definitely impacted my performance. However, it is slowly returning.”

While the man who handed him his debut, Denis Zanko, was replaced as coach of Le Mans early last week, when he spoke to Asian Football Feast recently he was full of praise for midfielder.

“Jiaqi has been at the club many years and we know him. He’s a very good player, that works well and give always his best for the team,” he said.

“After beginning of season complications (Zhang was injured during pre-season and returned to training later than normal), Jiaqi worked hard and deserved his debut with the first team.

“Jiaqi had a good performance with the professional team. He has an important role protecting our defense and participating to the offensive play as well. He’s improving but now he has to learn match after match.”

Zhang now has to impress new coach Regis Beunardeau. The fact he was included in the starting line-up for his first match is charge is a good sign. What’s not is that Le Mans is currently in the relegation zone with just four games remaining and face a fight if they are to survive and avoid the drop to Championnat National next season.

But having come so far already in his career, whatever happens over the next month you know Zhang won’t give up the fight. It’s just not his style.




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