Goodison recruit is one in a billion
Saturday August 23, 2002
The question prompted a knowing grin from his interpreter, but Li Tie
barely batted an eyelid. How many people across China will be watching
him play for Everton at Sunderland this afternoon? "Hard to say,"
he replied. "Probably around a billion. Perhaps more."
That may sound unlikely, given that the population of the Red Republic
is officially a "mere" 1.2 billion, but, while the mathematics
were lost in translation, the response still proved the point. Everton
may have a home-grown superstar in the making in the 16-year-old Wayne
Rooney, but in Li they already boast China's celebrity answer to David
"I can't go out back home without being mobbed," said the 24-year-old,
who arrived from the Beijing-based Chinese franchise Liaoning Bird on
a year-long loan as part of the Merseysiders' new two-year sponsorship
deal with Kejian, the telecommunications firm. "I'm not really that
comfortable in the limelight, but I couldn't escape it if I wanted to.
There's no such thing as a quiet meal out with my mates in Beijing."
Li's face stares out from soft-drink cans and down from billboards across
China, where he endorses everything from mobile phones to aftershave.
His autobiography, released just before the World Cup, has already sold
100,000 copies without having to resort to lurid accounts of hot-headed
retaliation. And, to cap it off, the midfielder did enough in his 76-minute
debut against Tottenham last weekend to suggest that David Moyes has recruited
a tidy player, too. Calm and composed on the ball, he buzzed effectively
until the frenetic tempo caught up with him late on. His appearance -
along with that of his compatriot Sun Jihai for Manchester City at Leeds
- marked the arrival of Chinese football in the Premiership. Forget Liverpool
or United, it is Everton and City who are making waves in the Far East.
"Maybe people do not realise it over here but in China everyone
is football crazy," he said. "Now they follow Everton with that
same passion. When we qualified for the World Cup earlier this year, over
one million people came to Tian'anmen Square to celebrate. Those scenes
were similar all over the country; football matters, so to be the first
Chinese player to make his mark on the Premiership means a lot.
"It also brings pressure. We dealt with plenty of expectation, a
lot of it unrealistic, during the World Cup finals but in some ways this
is harder still. Playing over here is a fulfilment of a life-long dream,
but the step up from the Chinese domestic league is huge. This is the
strongest league in the world and the challenge I wanted - there's nowhere
in China for me to improve my skills any further."
China's professional football league was only established eight years
ago and, while the standard is improving with the help of a sprinkling
of around 50 foreign players and coaches - mainly eastern Europeans and
the odd ageing Brazilian - the government is increasingly allowing the
cream of the country's footballers to move abroad to hone their skills.
Li and other teenage members of the Jianlibao side spent three years at
the Brazilian club Atletico Paranaense in the mid-90s, developing their
game in the Curitiba club's second string.
"We were only young and played reserve-team football, competitive
stuff, and you don't get experience like that in China," said Li.
"We may have a massive population back home but the economics of
everyday life mean that grass-roots football is not catered for at all.
I was picked out at school to attend a special sports college when I was
about eight years old, but I was lucky. It was more because I spent so
much time bunking off lessons and the teachers were at a loss and needed
something to catch my attention.
"My parents weren't too happy. They had me earmarked for a decent
schooling, a good university and then maybe a job working for the government
or the civil service, but everyone wants that in China. I was after something
different. I wasn't really aware of football before attending the college
- over here in England you see people kicking a football around in the
streets or parks, but back home we don't have the pitches or facilities
to match that.
"As soon as I started playing, I loved it. Football kept me out
of trouble and was about the only thing to hold my attention. Now I couldn't
live without it, but going to Brazil at 16 did help my education in the
game, developing skills I still use today."
China may have failed miserably in their first World Cup - all three
games lost without a goal scored - but Li stood out amid the disappointment
and now has 78 caps. "You can replace the Hao Haidongs and the Fan
Zhiyis, but you can't replace Li Tie," said the coach Bora Milutinovic,
who had previously taken the US, Mexico, Costa Rica and Nigeria to the
finals. "He's a world-class player, though he may need some time
to settle into English football."
If the transition still proves tricky, at least the midfielder has others
to whom he can turn for support. Sun, his international room-mate, had
a brief spell alongside the national team captain Fan Zhiyi with Crystal
Palace. That may have been dogged by disciplinary problems, home-sickness
and the club's descent into administration, but the pair were pioneers
and remain in Britain with City and Dundee respectively. Li Wei Feng pre-empted
Li Tie's arrival at Goodison Park by 24 hours; Zhang Enhua had a spell
at Grimsby and Tottenham are still hoping to sign the striker Qu Bo.
"Crystal Palace's first game with Sun and Fan [a stodgy 1-0 win
against Sheffield United] was televised to nearly a billion Chinese people
watching around the world," said Ma Dexing, a journalist on the Chinese
sports newspaper, Sports Weekly. "More would tune in if Everton played
their two Chinese in the Premiership."
Yet, as Palace discovered, the sudden global audience does not necessarily
open up a world of marketing opportunities. Replica shirt sales are hit
by the bootleggers who mop up the relatively few Chinese fans eager to
buy their adopted team's colours, while television revenues have, as yet,
stopped with the Beijing government rather than filtering west.
Instead, English clubs have had to develop more innovative ways to tap
the market. Newcastle this week announced plans to create their own club
to enter Jia B - Hong Kong United could play at the 40,000-seat stadium
in Happy Valley - which they would half-own with sponsorship monies making
it a worthwhile venture. Everton have attracted Kejian with a shirt sponsorship
worth £2m over two years, and City's chief operating officer Chris
Bird returned from a fact-finding tour of China last month as the newly
promoted side look to attract investment to Maine Road. City were the
most watched team on the main cable television station in Shanghai last
season thanks to Sun, but are challenged now by Everton.
"You can see why English clubs want to bring Chinese players over
here, but I would hope my ability is the most important thing," added
Li. "David Moyes saw me in Japan and decided I was the best player
in China. That's why I'm here now. Liverpool may be a different world
from Shenyang, but it's my home now. I'm determined to make this work."
© The Guardian 2002