By sportswriter Michael Butterworth
BEIJING, April 6 (Xinhua) -- Former Borussia Dortmund forward Mohamed Zidan says Chinese football fans must never give up hope that their country can once again qualify for the FIFA World Cup.
The Egyptian was in Beijing to meet local Dortmund fans ahead of the club's Saturday evening clash with Bundesliga rivals Bayern Munich, and told Xinhua of his appreciation for a country that he visits frequently.
"I love China and I come here about three times a year," enthused the 37-year-old, who now has several business interests in his native Egypt. "My main company deals with Chinese factories, and I'm very proud of working with them. I'm also very surprised to see so many Chinese supporters of the German league. It's nice to see that, and I'm happy to be around them."
"The only advice I can give China is to keep hoping and dreaming of playing in the World Cup. Last year, Egypt qualified for the World Cup after a 28-year absence, almost my whole lifetime! So anything is possible. If anyone can do it, China can."
As a player, Zidan came close to moving to the Chinese Super League in 2012 after his Dortmund contract ended, and said the league's recent influx of established talent from overseas has helped build its profile.
"When big players like Hulk and Oscar move to play here, people start to pay attention to the Chinese league. I think it's good that the CFA and big clubs in China are trying to get these players over here, because it shows people from all over the world that Chinese football is getting big. Here in Beijing, you have 50,000 spectators in the stadium, so the fans are here, and people go to watch the games and support their clubs, so it's good."
The high water mark of Zidan's playing career came at Dortmund, where he was part of the squad that won successive Bundesliga titles in 2011 and 2012. Coaching that side was Jurgen Klopp, who signed Zidan on three separate occasions during his career, and the Egyptian reserved special praise for the current Liverpool boss.
"He's a very special coach and a very special person. When I first had a meeting with him, after 15 minutes I stood up, shook his hand and told him I would sign for him, because I loved his personality, and I just felt that I wanted to play football for him."
"He's now been at Liverpool for four years and you can see everyone loves to play for him. You can see how well he develops players so that they can reach a very high level, like Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino. It's exactly the way he was at Mainz and Dortmund."
Salah's rise to global prominence since signing for Liverpool in 2017 has been a pleasant surprise for Zidan, who at one stage doubted that his former international teammate would reach such lofty heights.
"When I played with him, he was very fast, very talented and he worked very hard, but you would not have imagined seeing Mo Salah being in the top three or four players in the world. It's fantastic to see a player like him reach this level, because it gives a lot of hope for young Egyptian players. All Egyptians and all the Arab world are supporting him, and we always pray for him and hope that he keeps representing us in a good way."