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 By Chris Atkins

Retiring Sun Jihai a trailblazer for Chinese and Asian football

Distinguished former China international Sun Jihai has announced his retirement.

While the Chinese football media's recent attention has understandably been focused upon the likely influx of high-paid stars over the winter ahead, Saturday's announcement of one-time Manchester City player Sun Jihai's retirement has shifted the focus back to local issues.

With the ending of Sun's career, a significant chapter of Chinese football comes to a conclusion. His induction to English football's Hall of Fame at the National Football Museum rightfully caused some indignation. There can be little doubt that his inclusion was an attempt to impress upon Chinese president Xi Jinping's visit to Manchester given the full-back's steady rather than exceptional City career.

Yet, Sun was undoubtedly a trailblazer not just for Chinese football but Asian football too. He may not have been a standout player, but over the course of six Premier League seasons he was a consistent performer in the north west, besides brief spells with Crystal Palace and Sheffield United.

He was the first breakthrough Asian player of the Premier League era in England. Sun's retirement at the age of 39 must be a time for reflection in Chinese football. Now just three members of the 2002 World Cup squad remain in competitive action with the likes of Fan Zhiyi, Hao Haidong, Yang Chen and Li Tie long since retired. One-time Tottenham trialist Qu Bo remains on the books of Tianjin Teda but rarely features, centre-back Du Wei is a backup option for Manuel Pellegrini at Hebei China Fortune while Xu Yunlong remains a mainstay at Beijing Guoan.

For all their achievements, Sun was the last of a small group of players who both accomplished relative success with the national team and a sustained spell in European football.

A relatively unfashionable full-back, it is tempting to suggest that he could have been a Yao Ming-esque superstar figure had he played in more advanced areas.

"Sun Jihai brought pride to Chinese football," experienced journalist Zhang Liang told ESPN FC.

"While Yang Chen was in Germany for many years, the Bundesliga lacked the influence of the Premier League.

"It was a golden age for the game here, especially with the World Cup qualification. Sun, as someone who could perform on the Premier League stage, achieved unprecedented feats for a Chinese player."

While predominantly known as a right-back, Sun's intelligence on the pitch allowed him to play in virtually every position on the pitch -- including a brief spell as a forward under the management of Arie Haan. It was this same intelligence which allowed him to play on into his 40th year despite rarely exceeding walking pace.

Sun in his later years was far from the player of his youth, yet still played an influential role in taking his Guizhou Renhe side to CFA Cup glory in 2013.

According to all concerned, Sun's professionalism remained exemplary off the pitch and that dedication to maintaining high-standards undoubtedly allowed his career to extend while many of his peers hung up their boots. In a league plagued by accusations of players lacking professionalism and ambition, he remained an example to follow.

Sun Jihai is perhaps best known for his spell at Manchester City between 2002-08.

"He has been hugely important to Chinese football. Sun showed others that they had the ability to play at high levels in Europe and achieve a regular place in the side through hard work," Zhang added.

"He achieved through determination to prove his own ability, not the commercial reasons [we see in other cases].

"Only when China is able to produce players who exceed what Sun achieved, or more Sun Jihais, can Chinese football really succeed."

The question for Chinese football at this time must be where is the next Sun Jihai coming from?

Guangzhou Evergrande captain Zheng Zhi is the only player who can claim similar status still in action and, at 36, is well into the autumn of his career. Younger stars Zhang Linpeng and Wu Lei have reasonable status domestically, but have not reached the levels of achievement or fame their predecessors enjoyed. Now both would appear unlikely to ever have the opportunity to play at higher levels.

At youth level it is not much of a prettier picture despite a raft of young players being parachuted into elite European academies. China's results at Under-22, U19 and U16 level remain poor and there is little to suggest that there are players on the cusp of matching Sun's achievements coming through in any great number. Indeed, once more, it is Vitesse Arnhem striker Zhang Yuning who will likely carry all Chinese hopes of developing a footballing star in the years to come.

While there are dreams of China rising up the rankings in years to come to challenge world football's top nations, its first target has to be to match its own standards set in the late 90s and early 2000s which culminated in a World Cup appearance in 2002 and Asian Cup final in 2004.

For the time being, that remains a distant memory. With Sun too heading into the sunset, it is an era which seems ever more detached from Chinese football's current realities.

Chris Atkins is based in China and writes for ESPN FC about the Chinese Super League. You can follow him on Twitter @ChrisAtkins_.

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