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Goodison recruit is one in a billion
The Guardian
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 Beckham.

"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