Team: Guangzhou Evergrande
Position: Centre/Defensive Midfielder
Former team: Celtic
As one of the few Chinese players to play in Europe with some success and at relatively good clubs in relatively big leagues, Zheng Zhi is Guangzhou Evergrande’s experienced lynchpin in the centre of the park. At the age of 36, the Evergrande captain does it all. He scores goals, assists, and tackles anyone trying to come anywhere near the Guangzhou goal.
Despite starting his career at CSL side Liaoning, he never featured for the first team and moved to Shenzhen FC (back then Shenzen Ping An Kejian/Insurance and Shenzhen Jianlibao for sponsorship reasons).
After several good seasons, he topped it off by guiding a financially unstable (players went unpaid for seven months) Shenzen to the title in the inaugural Super League season in 2004, their first and only title, as a playmaker in the midfield. He was previously used as a defender but had been moved up the pitch ahead of that season. He also played as a defender for the Chinese National team as they came runner-up in the 2004 AFC Asian Cup.
The next season Zheng joined the previous season’s runner-ups and cup winners Shandong Luneng. But compared to last season the 2005 season was a worse one for both Zheng and the club. They finished third in the league and came runner-up in the cup.
The 2006 season became their big payback as they took the league and cup double. Zheng played a pivotal role as he scored 21 goals in 26 matches in the league as he was moved even further up the pitch by coach Ljubiša Tumbaković, to play as an attacking midfielder.
Just before New Year’s Eve, on 29th December 2006, Zheng was loaned out to, then Premier League side, Charlton.
He came on in a 2-0 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford to make his debut for the club. His first start came three matches later as he was the star of the show in a 2-0 win over Newcastle at home. He scored the first goal before being fouled by Nolberto Solano inside the box to give the home side a penalty, which Jerome Thomas converted.
After that Newcastle win, Zheng was an integral part of the Charlton team and played all 90 minutes in the remaining games bar two. Unfortunately, Charlton were relegated at the end of the season, four points adrift of safety.
Charlton had an option to buy him from Shandong and used it, Zheng went on to feature in 42 of the 46 games in the 07/08 Championship season as Charlton finished mid-table.
He didn’t feature for much of the 08/09 season as Charlton were relegated and did not agree on a new contract with the club.
He then joined Scottish heavyweights Celtic on 1st September. He featured 16 times in the league for Celtic in his one and only season there, nine as a starter and seven as a substitute. Unfortunately, he didn’t join the club in time to be registered for the Europa League squad so he missed out on that tournament.
After the Scottish season ended he joined, then League One side, Guangzhou Evergrande on a free transfer back in China, where he’s been ever since. He helped them gain promotion as he scored five goals in his 11 appearances in the latter half of the 2010 season.
He took over the captaincy before the 2011 season and could lift the trophy at the end as Guangzhou won the CSL for the first time. The following season they won the league and cup double and in 2013 he captained the team to another glorious win as they won the 2013 AFC Champions League for the first time, becoming the first Chinese club ever to win that tournament. He was awarded the AFC Asian Footballer of the Year for his performances.
Guangzhou has won the league every season since Zheng’s arrival.
Zheng has turned out 96 times for his nation since his debut in 2002 and has scored 15 goals. He has been captain for China on several occasions. He has also been named in the Chinese Super League Team of the Year on nine occasions, from 2002-2006 and from 2012-2015.