Former Bundesliga star and 2003 Chinese Player of the Year Jörg Albertz enjoyed a successful two-year spell at Shanghai Shenhua (© Imago)
Former Bundesliga star and 2003 Chinese Player of the Year Jörg Albertz enjoyed a successful two-year spell at Shanghai Shenhua (© Imago)

Albertz: 'Zhang definitely has potential'

Cologne - It is a transfer that has stolen Bundesliga headlines and had tongues wagging in equal measure, as VfL Wolfsburg confirmed the transfer of 23-year-old Xizhe Zhang, the 11th Chinese players to grace Germany’s two top tiers, in the winter break.

To discuss all the angles of the deal, caught up with former Hamburger SV star Jörg Albertz, who has become something of a Chinese football expert having himself spent a two-year stint with Shanghai Shegua during which he was named the 2003 Player of the Year in the Chinese Super League. Jörg Albertz, eleven years ago you embarked on a Chinese adventure, leaving HSV in 2003 to join Shanghai Shengua. What was going through your head when you stepped off the plane back then?

Jörg Albertz: It was an incredible culture shock for me and my girlfriend back then. We arrived in China and I ended up sitting in my hotel room wanting to go back home straight away. However, we decided to wait it out and then got to know the head coach. He gave me a tour of the training facilities and it was all rather good. The talks I had with the head coach were okay, he could speak German because he spent some time studying in Cologne. That was when I decided to make the move, as I always found myself on the bench with HSV and wanted to start playing again. In hindsight I have to say that it was an incredible experience that no one can take away from me. In stark contrast to much of the country, Shanghai is a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city. Was that an advantage for you when it came to settling in?

Albertz: Definitely. Shanghai is a metropolis and can’t be compared to any other city in China. It’s difficult to say whether I’d have gone through with the deal had I been playing in a smaller province. What were the biggest problems you faced in your day-to-day life?

Albertz: The size of the country was certainly one. Everything is so far removed from anything else, but once you get to know your way around then it’s not a problem at all. In China you can still get your hands on fresh white bread and a tube of rémoulade. One negative is definitely the insane traffic. It’s an experience in and of itself. For me though, it wasn’t that bad as I’m pretty adaptable. You were the first foreigner in the team. How did it go trying to communicate in Chinese?

Albertz: It wasn’t an issue. The whole team made a tremendous effort, while one or two of them had a few words of broken English. Otherwise I always had my own translator. On the pitch I quickly learned the most important words like, left, right or straight on, while when you’re on the field there are methods that are universally understood. In your first campaign you were named the Player of the Season and won the league title with your team. How would you assess the level of play in the Chinese league?

Albertz: When I first arrived, the league had only been in existence for ten years. There was a lot of interest within China, but there is still a lot to be done if it wants to compete internationally. However, the Chinese are always very willing to learn. China has huge potential just simply because of the large population. Certain things need to be done in a more professional manner with European football being the measure of all things. During my time there, the top teams were performing at a second-tier level. What does a typical Matchday involve in China?

Albertz: To get to the games we sometimes had to spend four, five hours on an airplane. Then we’d sit in a bus for another three hours. Some players even had to sit on boxes, which makes you think that you can’t really prepare yourself for the encounter in the most professional manner. Afterwards, as an example, we would leave the stadium and go straight to the hotel to shower. The infrastructure has improved a great deal between then and now though. It has become a lot more professional. Do you believe Wolfsburg’s new recruit Xizhe Zhang will help strengthen the side?

Albertz: In recent years the level of football in the Chinese league has definitely improved. Players can learn a lot from coaches like Marcello Lippi [currently head coach at Chinese champions Guangzhou Evergrande FC]. The chinese players are quick and technically gifted, even if they don’t always possess the necessary discipline. The Wolfsburg scouts will have watched Zhang closely. They know what they’re doing. Zhang has already collected ten caps for the Chinese national team and was named the Young Player of the Year in 2012. How quickly do you believe he can acclimatise to life in Germany?

Albertz: I'm assuming that he'll be somewhat of a developmental player for Wolfsburg. The youngster will definitely have potential though. Whether he'll strengthen the side in the short or long term remains to be seen. The most important thing for him will be quickly settling in and feeling comfortable in Germany. What will Zhang have to do to fit in?

Albertz: The Chinese people are very family-oriented. Pulling a Chinese youngster out of his comfort zone isn't easy. Zhang will have to possess a strong character to find his feet in Germany, because it definitely won't be easy at the beggining when he's maybe not playing regularly. A former team-mate of mine in Shanghai, Du Wei, joined Celtic FC in 2005 and was never happy there and ended up leaving again after just one season. When were you last in China?

Albertz: Last year the football association and my former club invited me over. They were having a celebratory encounter with Real Madrid CF. I still have a really good reputation over there and I was delighted to be able to travel back to China once again.

Interview by Alexander Barklage