China-Germany footballing ties run deep. In 1975, the West German Olympic side were one of the few Western teams to play in Mao’s China. They lost 1-0 to Guangdong but gained revenge five years later when they beat the Cantonese at Yuexiushan. China also visited West Germany in this period of thawing international relations, playing three matches there in 1978 on their first tour to Western Europe.
Whilst the national team was taking on a broader array of international opponents than ever before, there were still tight restrictions on individual Chinese players representing foreign clubs. It took until 1987 for the first mainland Chinese player to play professionally abroad when youngster Xie Yuxin moved to Zwolle ’82 in Holland. Compared to the previous absence of international transfers, this sparked something of a rush on Chinese talent. National team captain Jia Xiuquan and striker Liu Haiguang both joined Partizan Belgrade in 1988. Gu Guangming was already playing in Germany by this time.
Diminutive winger Gu Guangming was a star for Guangdong and China in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. He toured the UK with China in 1979, was part of the team that narrowly lost out to New Zealand for a place at the 1982 World Cup and scored twice in the 1984 AFC Asian Cup where China came second. He broke his leg in 1986 though and it looked like his career was over.
However, Gu applied to the German Sport University Cologne and, after receiving approval from the vice governor of Guangdong, moved to Germany later that year. After recovering from injury, Gu played for a local amateur side where he was spotted by Klaus Schlappner. Schlappner – much more of him later – had just taken over at SV Darmstadt 98 and persuaded Gu to join him in 1987. It was a move that Gu would not regret. The winger racked up over 100 appearances for Darmstadt in the German second division over five seasons. That Gu went from someone who thought his career was over to become the Chinese player with the most experience of playing abroad (at the time) is truly remarkable.