Exclusive: Former Everton Midfielder Li Tie on His Career and Football in China

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Exclusive: Former Everton Midfielder Li Tie on His Career and Football in China
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Li Tie's final act in English football would be to earn a red card against Arsenal. Two unnecessary tackles in the space of a minute saw referee Mark Halsey produce a second yellow card for the Everton player in August 2003, in what was a cruel way to end what had been a largely promising spell with the Toffees.

Li's all-action style had won the trust of manager David Moyes the year before, but it was the same eagerness to impress that saw his final first-team appearance end in such disappointment.

Having won many of his doubters over, following initial scepticism over the involvement of sponsors Kejian in his recruitment, it was a cruel blow.

The following month, while on international duty with China, the Shenyang-born midfielder fractured his shin bone. It was an injury that would mark the beginning of the end of his time in the Premier League.

“England left me with great memories. I still go back every year,” Li told Bleacher Report, speaking in the Guangzhou hotel belonging to the Evergrande Group, owners of the current Asian club champions.

“My daughter was born there and she is now nine years old. When I took her back to a game earlier this season, the staff still joke that she is "a scouser." Many of the club staff are still there—they cannot believe how much she has grown.”

The first Asian player to play in the Premier League, Li is now a first-team coach with Evergrande and is working closely with World Cup winning manager Marcello Lippi on the formation of what is potentially the continent's first “superclub.”

Evergrande are on course for a fourth consecutive league title and are in the quarterfinal stage of the AFC Champions League—the title no Chinese side had won until their achievements last year. Li, with his ability to relate to both the European and Chinese elements of the dressing room, plays an important role in ensuring Lippi's demands are understood.

Zhong Zhi/Getty Images
Li is a member of Marcello Lippi's staff at Evergrande

His time spent in England, though, clearly had a great influence on both his life and career. Li speaks fondly of the atmosphere in stadiums, particularly Goodison Park, of Liverpool itself and the friendliness of the people.

In one particular story, he recalls being introduced to a young Wayne Rooney by manager David Moyes while being shown around the training facilities at Everton, with the Toffees manager stating then the teenager would be a future star.

China, though, has no such players and the football-based culture in which Rooney developed in Liverpool is the biggest missing link in the mind of his former teammate.

“Kids in England are always playing football,” he notes. “Football is a part of many people's identity that they cannot be without and there are millions playing on a regular basis.

“I remember last time I went back to England, I was spotted by an Everton fan at the airport. He had seen every game I played for the club and even remembered me scoring in a preseason game against Rangers. This culture hasn't developed here yet.

“In that respect, we are still far behind. We only have something like 10 or 20 thousand children registered as playing organised football. We have a long process ahead.”

Ben Radford/Getty Images
Li chases Juninho at the 2002 World Cup

Li's spell working alongside Lippi, though, is all part of a wider ambition to change things. Recently appointed—at least temporarily—assistant manager to Alain Perrin with the Chinese national team, he has a burning desire to assist in the development of football in the Middle Kingdom.

Given the opportunities he was afforded himself, spending five years in Brazil honing his talents as a teenager before starring as part of the first China side ever to play at a World Cup, the former Toffee feels a responsibility to give back to future generations.

“I was very lucky as a player,” he continued. “I was able to experience so many things, but I hope there is a day I can take China to the World Cup as a coach. If I can achieve that, I feel my career will be complete.

“I hope the Chinese FA call upon our generation of players. We have experience of success and that is not something everyone can say. We can help pass that on to a new generation.

“Coaching is all I wish to do and that is why I came to Evergrande to learn. I could have stayed in Liaoning if I wanted—I was comfortable there and the fans loved me. There was no need to move.”

The 2002 World Cup generation of Chinese footballers have not been entirely successful in their forays into management, but Li is doing his best to ensure he has the best possible chance of success.

Of those Chinese players to play in Europe for any length of time, Shao Jiayi and Sun Jihai are still playing in the Chinese Super League, albeit they are nearing the end of their illustrious careers. Former Charlton midfielder Zheng Zhi, meanwhile, is captain of Evergrande and, until recently, the China national side.

Bundesliga veteran Yang Chen is also cutting his teeth as an assistant manager, employed by Guizhou Renhe, while Fan Zhiyi has made a couple of unsuccessful stabs at management and is now frequently seen as a pundit. It is a source of much pain to Chinese fans that in nearby Korea, many of the country's top clubs are, or have been, managed by those of the same generation.

Once more, China is lagging behind and, in that respect, it is understandable Li has become almost a beacon of hope in the manner he is approaching the transition to coaching.

Success, though, is far from guaranteed in one of football's most unpredictable environments. As such, he is realistic about the challenges ahead for his country.

“If we want an example of how to develop we need look no further than Japan,” he comments. “The work now being done in youth football will take a long time to come to fruition. It is not a case that changes this year will see results next year.

“We need to continue this work for several years. The work that is being done now will maybe only see results in 10 or 20 years. But, if we do nothing, Chinese football will still be the same in 10 years time.

“I have plans to open a soccer school myself and maybe there will be chance to cooperate with Everton. If there is one day I can't be a coach, I will put all my efforts into youth.

“I only have interest for football and want to use my experience from England. I hope to choose some aspects of the coaching there that are suited to China and bring them over.”

Stu Forster/Getty Images

Li's immediate thinking will now turn to the remainder of the season with Evergrande, with the club once more on course for domestic and continental success. His role with the national team, though, is not quite so straightforward.

It is easy to accept the status quo in China, which can often be one of the biggest obstacles to success. Li, though, is not content to allow the current situation to remain unchallenged.

Despite all the issues, he remains firm in his belief that Chinese football will one day flourish. For now, though, it remains a somewhat distant prospect.

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