The nominees for the 2016 AFC best men's and women's footballer awards were announced earlier this week to great media fanfare in China. For the first time ever, China was represented in both shortlists, with Shanghai SIPG forward Wu Lei and Olympics star Tan Ruyin earning the nod for their performances in AFC competition over the past 12 months.
Given the major drive currently ongoing towards achieving greater football success, such validations are a major confidence boost amid frequent setbacks.
For Wu, the nomination is confirmation the 25-year-old is the best attacking talent to come out of China in some time. Having had the opportunity to play in the AFC Champions League this season, scoring seven goals, he has now been recognised on a continental level.
Unfortunately for the Nanjing-native, UAE's Omar Abdulrahman would appear a certainty for the eventual prize when handed out in Abu Dhabi next month. Should Wu match 2001 winner Fan Zhiyi or 2013 equivalent Zheng Zhi, it would be a major surprise. Abdulrahman has been sensational for club and country over the past 12 months and his Al Ain side are current favourites to lift the Champions League trophy this month. In AFC competition, nobody comes close.
It is that fact which of course needs to be remembered at this juncture. AFC run a second "international" award for those plying their trade in Europe, where Son Heung-Min is a strong bet to retain his title. Wu is competing solely with those based in Asia, but will surely have to bide his time to claim even that prize -- as the player himself admits, he is perhaps a fortunate nominee.
"It's a shock, I hadn't expected a nomination this year," Wu told Sina Sports, while tipping Abdulrahman for the crown.
"SIPG did not get to the semifinals of the Champions League and I haven't scored in this round of World Cup qualifying, so I'm a little surprised to be in the final three."
The comments echo the thoughts of many in China. While delighted at his recognition, Wu's form with the national team has not been good, while his record in big games domestically was also poor.
His inclusion must be seen solely in the light of his Champions League form. Undoubtedly talented and perhaps worthy of the award in the future, it is up to Wu to answer those criticisms. No longer a young prospect, he must begin to find form for China if he is to justify inclusion on such a platform. While consistently in double figures for league goals over recent seasons, he must shed his "flat-track bully" tag and contribute when the pressure is on.
By contrast, in the women's award, China perhaps have a genuine contender in 22-year-old Tan Ruyin. The first player to be nominated for the prize in 10 years, Tan has gone from a virtual unknown two years ago to an indispensable cog in Bruno Bini's much improved national team, playing every minute at the Olympic Games despite ongoing injury management.
Nicknamed "China's Andrea Pirlo," Tan is a rarity in the local game as a midfielder who is prepared to put herself forward and manage the game from the centre of the park. While unassuming and modest off the pitch, she has the potential to be a leading figure for the Steel Roses over the next decade.
Tan shot to wider fame in Rio de Janeiro this summer with her stunning 40-yard goal against South Africa. Not famed for her goalscoring, suddenly she was headline news across the world, much to the shock of the player herself. While the likes of former Asian Player of the Year Ma Xiaoxu and 21-year-old Wang Shuang are accustomed to such attention, Tan much prefers to shy away from the limelight.
"I'm still a bit dizzy," Tan told Sina following the nomination. "It shows some things I did have been recognised but I don't know whether I'll be able to win the award. Let's see."
With the Chinese women's game on the rise and a group of talented players coming through, Tan will undoubtedly need to become accustomed to such attention. What the Cantonese girl's rise perhaps teaches China is that without undue hype and expectation -- as afforded to any remotely talented player -- young prospects can flourish.
On Dec. 1, the pair will discover their fate and regardless of the result, will find their profiles increased by virtue of nomination alone. China needs football stars and such accolades will go a long way to boosting belief lower down the ranks.
At the same time, though, those in charge must view the awards of an indication of how far is still to go. China has not threatened to produce a natural talent in the manner of Abdulrahman, nor a player who could contend with the likes of Shinji Kagawa, Son Heung-Min and Mile Jedinak for the international award. As the attempted "football revolution" gathers pace over the years ahead, it is to reach such a level that Chinese players must aspire.
However, with all the money now flowing around in the men's game at least, keeping players motivated to strive for improvement is already becoming a major problem. This year's recognition is a success, but it must merely be a starting point to be built upon. China can and should achieve more. Until such nominations are commonplace, that will remain the case.