BRISBANE - Goalkeeper Wang Dalei was once plagued by controversy, but the former bad boy of Chinese football made a dream start to the Asian Cup with a man-of-the-match display against Saudi Arabia.
Tattooed Wang was branded a national disgrace in 2010 when he called fans "dogs" and "morons" after China's defeat to Japan at the Asian Games in Guangzhou, earning a suspension despite a grovelling apology.
But the Shandong Luneng stopper proved his worth with a vital penalty save in Saturday's 1-0 over the Saudis in Brisbane, a potentially priceless result as they strive to reach the quarter-finals.
Wang's joy was obvious after he saved Naif Hazazi's hesitant spot-kick with his legs, a triumphant moment providing the icing on the cake on his 26th birthday.
China cashed in on Wang's heroics when Yu Hai's deflected free-kick sailed into the Saudi goal, giving ex-Lyon coach Alain Perrin the perfect start to his first Asian Cup.
"Before the match I got a lot of courage from my coach," said Wang. "I remember a journalist asked me if I was ready for the tournament and I told him the match on January 10 will tell. Of course, we were lucky but I'd like to congratulate my coach and my brothers." China scraped into the Asian Cup on goal difference as the best third-placed team in the qualifying groups, despite a 3-1 defeat by Iraq on the final day.
That loss last March came at the start of Perrin's tenure but under the Frenchman, China are now unbeaten in 10 matches since June.
Perrin, who steered Lyon to the Ligue 1 title in 2008, gave an indication of the harmony in the Chinese dressing room by revealing the team had clubbed together to buy a gift for birthday boy Wang.
"Of course, we will prepare something for our keeper but we will keep it a secret," said Perrin. "But today belongs to Wang Dalei. He did really well.
"For me, I had no huge regrets about the match. I'm definitely satisfied with our defending. We faced a lot of pressure from our opponents but we never let in a goal.
"The match was difficult for us but we also got a lot of joy from the match. We put in a lot of (preparation) for this tournament, which was difficult. Every team goes through times when they are in good condition and bad condition. We are moving forward as a team, step by step."