Zhang Yuning traded Vitesse Arnhem for the Bundesliga and Werder Bremen by way of a two-year loan from West Bromich Albion on Wednesday as he seeks to grasp an opportunity that has become increasingly rare for Chinese players.
The 20-year-old striker, who has spent the last two seasons at Vitesse in the Netherlands, joined West Brom on a three-year contract before shifting immediately to Germany as the Premier League club looks to nurture his talent.
“I’m very proud to have the chance to play for this team,” said Zhang. “Werder is a big club in China and I’m really excited about this opportunity.
“My dream is to play in the Bundesliga and I hope to be able to showcase my skills at some point in the near future.”
Should Zhang break into the Bremen senior squad, he would be unique as a Chinese footballer in plying his trade in one of Europe’s leading leagues.
While the huge salaries on offer to the likes of Oscar and Carlos Tevez have claimed the headlines, China’s headlong rush to throw money at the game has had an impact on the country’s own players too.
As it stands, Zhang Yuning is the only member of Marcello Lippi’s national squad attached to a club outside the Chinese Super League, where the wages on offer makes overseas moves unattractive.
Highly-rated defender Zhang Linpeng, for example, is one of the first names on Lippi’s China team sheet and the 28-year-old has been regularly linked with a move abroad, only to remain with Guangzhou Evergrande due to the club’s financial strength.
New regulations put in place by the Chinese Football Association have only served to limited the likelihood of the country’s players moving overseas to develop their careers.
Since the start of the season, teams in the Chinese Super League must field at least one domestic player under the age of 23 in their starting line-up, a move that has seen clubs lure young players playing overseas back to China.
Principal among those was Wei Shihao, who returned on loan from Portuguese club Leixoes to big spending Shanghai SIPG and scored on his debut against Shandong Luneng in April.
Others, though, have not been so fortunate as coaches chose to circumnavigate the regulations by withdrawing young players within minutes of kick-off.
The situation has created a conundrum for young Chinese players: move back to China for more money but few guarantees of development in the Chinese Super League or stay overseas and hope to break through in an even tougher environment.
The issue has caused problems for Lippi, who faced criticism earlier in the year for sticking by Zhang when he included him in the squad for the World Cup qualifying win over South Korea.
“Zhang Yuning hasn’t had regular playing opportunities at his club and that’s not a good thing to maintain his status,” Lippi said back in March.
“But his quality is recognised at national team level, so I called him up. I hope he can win more chances with his club in order to maintain a consistent level.”