One of the worst-kept secrets in football is the age of certain African footballers. Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal and Kenya have all been caught using over-aged players in Junior tournaments. In an equally opaque world, Chinese players, in order to gain an advantage to get into football academies and professional teams.
There is no evidence or claim that any official organisation in China, like in African countries, is involved in age-cheating, but players – most of the time under the influence of their eager parents and coaches, benefit from adjusting their age. No player of consequence has been caught red-handed, but changing age is rife in sports in China. Its gymnasts faced serious questions in the 2008 Olympics; the footballers, it seems, escaped the question so far as it is still a dire failure among many of China’s sporting achievements.
Then, Zhang Xiuwei’s age problem is significant. The problem it raises not only is of an ordinary Joe but concerns one of the biggest rising stars in Chinese football at a time unprecedented amounts of money and attention are put into it. Zhang’s problem arises when last year he was caught drinking and driving, which not only gave him a criminal record but made him miss Quanjian’s winter training camp in Qatar this year as he is still under judicial supervision. The court judgement also exposed an aspect everyone around him would rather not let other people know.
True, Zhang’s age, as so with many others, had been in doubt long before he drove his Porsche 911 into others, but the incident has given him unwanted publicity and the evidence-collecting has since gathered pace. The damning court judgement confirmed Zhang Xiuwei, who was born on 13 March 1996, used the name Zhang Jixuan. A Zhang Jixuan, born on 13 March 1994, represented Chengdu in the seventh National Intercity Games. Further back, the 1996-born Zhang Xiuwei did not represent his junior middle school since 2007, Chengdu Tanghu Foreign Languages School, in 2008, which is extraordinary given the multiple claims that Zhang has been a footballer since a very young age. Other pieces of evidence in his junior years with Sichuan or Chengdu teams confirms Zhang Xiuwei is Zhang Jixuan who was born in 1994, but the final nail came from the Weibo in 2011 from Zhang Xiuwei’s coach Dai Chaohong, who excitedly pointed out the number 7 (Zhang Xiuwei) is Zhang Jixuan from Chengdu, ‘whom I tutored’.
Zhang Xiuwei has used both dates of birth alternatively throughout his junior career to cope with requirements for different teams and tournaments, not least Olympique Lyonnais’ youth team, which he joined in 2013. Min Quanxin, the former R&F midfielder whose former name is Min Junlin, also changed his year of birth from 1994 to 96 for the National Games before changing it back. As a consequence, he was subsequently given up by the National Junior Team that Zhang Xiuwei contributed to and shone in. Min has since given up grass football and gone to 5-a-side.
Even if Zhang Xiuwei was born in 1994, it is still undeniable that he is one of the best younger players in China at the moment. His conduct in his private life might be questionable at best (aside from the drunk driving, he was also filmed dressed in woman’s clothes), but his ability on the pitch is apparent. For such a talented player to feel the need to get ahead in the brutal environment of Chinese football where corruption and nepotism have never gone away. His age raises much bigger questions than the delight of his moves on the pitch.
The Chinese FA responded on 19 December that they have launched an investigation into the matter but so far everything else has remained silent.