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Weifeng: My secret agony
by Larry Neild, The Daily Post
Thursday September 19, 2002

ON the streets of Beijing he was mobbed by followers and adoring fans. In Korea he has already become a pin-up among girl football supporters.

His crucial goals in the World Cup preliminaries earned his country a prized place in Japan and Korea.

Thousands of miles away Li Weifeng (left) is dreaming of instilling some oriental magic into the fortunes of Everton.

The smiles, though, of the friendly gentle defender, who played for China in the World Cup, disguise a double family tragedy that still haunts him.

As Li Weifeng was about to break into big time national football in his home country, the older brother he adored was murdered as he halted a street robbery.

The have-a-go teenage student Li Chenguang was hailed a hero in Li's home city of Changchun for such a brave act. It cost the 17-year-old economics student his life.

It was 1993 and younger brother Li Weifeng was preparing to win his place in the China Youth team 1,000 miles away in capital Beijing.

His parents were so determined to keep news of the tragedy from him that they tried to convince the then 15-year-old that his brother was busy at his studies.

Instinct told Li Weifeng that a terrible tragedy had befallen the brother he looked up to and hero-worshipped.

He won that cherished place and his football career started to take off. Six months later Li Weifeng's parents moved to Beijing and at the first family reunion after the murder there was no talk of what had happened. The memories were still too raw and heartbreaking for Li Weifeng and his griefstricken parents at such a tragic waste of life.

At such a young and tender age Li Weifeng wanted to spare more sorrow for his parents, so he resisted the temptation to ask about what happened. It was as though there was an unspoken rule and an understanding that the loss was just too much to be spoken of.

He buried the knowledge deep within his heart and it was only at night when he could hear the sobs of his mother that Li Weifeng, in the privacy of his own room, permitted himself to grieve at the loss of his brother.

To add to his woes, as Li Weifeng was dreaming of what would be his greatest moment of glory - playing for China in this year's World Cup - another tragedy hit his family. His father was killed in a terrible road accident in Millennium year.

Now when he wears the famous blue shirt of Everton he dedicates every moment on the hallowed Goodison pitch to the cherished memories of his brother and father, both snatched too early from life.

Every day he makes a long distance telephone call to his mother, Liu Yi Ping, in Guangdong, better known by its old name of Canton. Now there are just the two of them in the family.

He has already started the countdown to next month when his mother travels to Liverpool so she can see for herself his assault on the Premiership.

Li Weifeng was a youngster aged just nine when friends realised he had a golden touch in football kickarounds in Changchun, a city that in China's War of Aggression with Japan formed the Japanese headquarters in Manchuria. To this day Japanese-style architecture dominates the industrial inland city in North East China, one-time seat of the last Emperor of China.

With his potential sporting talent recognised, Li Weifeng was chosen to attend a college in Beijing that specialises in sports.

So at the age of just 12, he packed his bags and boarded a train for the arduous 20 hour journey to the nation's capital.

Sharing a dormitory with seven other boys, Li Weifeng remembers his days at the sporting academy with much fondness.

"We played football, but there was no money for shirts or football boots and our pitch was a very rough surface with no grass," he says. "It was hard but I adored playing football. My all-time hero at that time was Kevin Keegan. I had read about him and seen him on television and he was an inspiration to me.

"Even at that young age I wondered what it would be like playing top-flight football in England. I never imagined that one day I would be playing for Everton in the Premier League. It is like a dream.

"I started playing football on the streets of our city when I was less than 10 years old.

People told me that I had a special talent for football, but I did not think of it like that. It was my hobby and I loved it so much.

"Then in 1989 when I was just 11 I was chosen to play for my city's youth team in an international contest in Japan.

"It was not only my first journey out of China, it was the first time I had ventured out of my home province. We did not win any trophies but I scored three goals, a good tally for a midfield player.

"I must have been noticed because when I was 12, I was transferred to Beijing. I had to leave my family in Changchun and it was a hard life for me.

"Our living conditions were very basic, but I quickly made friends among my dormitory mates. Even today I keep in contact with some of the boys from those days.

"Then in 1995 I was selected to go to Brazil to train. I was there for 18 months and learned to speak some Portuguese. I was also given the chance to watch the Brazil national team.

"This was an important time in my football career because it was when I really developed my skills.

"Just before the World Cup this year I was told that there may be an opportunity for me to play for Everton. I was a follower of the Premier League so I was aware of Everton and what a great team it was, with a long tradition in football.

"I met David Moyes and was delighted with the warmth and friendship he showed towards me. The team has a tremendous spirit.

"I want to do my best for Everton, but I know that I have to earn my place and I will be guided by the manager.

"Liverpool is such a beautiful city with a lot of culture and I love living here. I have even learned how to cook spaghetti and fried eggs.

"I think of my dad and know how proud he would have been for me playing in the World Cup and now playing in England. It is such a great pity that he never got the chance to watch me. He was such an inspiration to me as a boy and I play in his memory and that of my brother.

"My brother was a hero and talking about what happened to him is still very painful for me.

"When the tragedy happened, my parents did not want to tell me because they were worried it would harm my future.

"My brother was only 17 and he saw an old lady being robbed, so he ran over and struggled with the robber so that the lady could be freed. But he was stabbed and died.

"I was in Beijing and when I called my family and asked to speak to my brother, they made an excuse and said he was a little busy with his studies. But I instinctively knew that something terrible had happened.

"Nobody told me anything as I was too far away from my home city. I found out later the truth of the terrible tragedy, but as a family we just never spoke about it. It was as painful for my parents as it was for me. My mother cried a lot because her heart was broken.

"My parents moved from Changchun to Beijing and then I went with them to Guangdong to start a new life there away from the pain.

"They were picking up the pieces when the tragedy happened to my father. I was talking to him on the telephone just an hour before he was killed in a terrible car accident."

Li Weifeng's eyes are moist as he quietly recalls the memories of the loss of two of the most important people in his life.

But in stoic Far East traditions, those losses are not a setback to Li Weifeng, they are a driving force. He wants to do well for Everton in their memories.

"Playing well will make them very happy," he says almost in a whisper.

"Yes I miss China, it is my homeland. I miss my mother and I will be so happy when she can visit me next month."

Her traditional home cooking is one of the things he misses about home.

But he is setting his sights high on the football field.

"My ambition is to be the best footballer in the world," he adds. "I understand the situation here at Everton and will play when the manager requires me to play.

"I will earn my place and I hope that people will believe in me, because I will always give my best."

He is aware that he is seen as a footballing hero among thousands of football followers in China and the Far East. But to Li Weifeng the real heroes are his brother and father and his thoughts are to look forward to a long career in their memories.


� The Daily Post 2002