The last year has been good to combative Chinese midfielder Li Tie: a debut appearance at the World Cup, the Chinese Player of the Year award and a move to England with Premier League side Everton have all been secured.
But while one of east Asia’s most talented players prepares to take his career to the next level thanks to a one-year loan deal with the Merseysiders, the cynics are already sharpening their knives.
Asian players moving to Europe are often viewed with scepticism by press and fans because of concerns that the move has more to do with a club’s commercial aspirations than those on the field of play.
On the face of it, the signing of Li, along with compatriot and namesake Li Weifeng, is nothing more than a promotional move for Everton’s new sponsors – Chinese mobile phone company Kejian. But to suggest thatthe signing of the 24-year-old is little more than a marketing ploy would belittle the talents of one of China’s most impressive players of the past two years.
Bora Milutinovic claimed Li to be the heart and soul of his team as China qualified for their first World Cup. Before that successful qualifying campaign,Li had been linked with a move to Ajax, which failed to materialise because of his national team commitments.
For Li, the move to England is the fulfilment of a long-held career plan.
“When I was 16, my coach asked all the players to write down what we would like to achieve by the age of 25,” said Li earlier this year. “I wrote four things: I want to play in the World Cup; I want to be the best player in China; I want to win a national championship (Li was in the Liaoning province side that won the Chinese National Games title in December); and I want to play overseas.
“In China now we can see football on television from all over the world and I like English football very much. But I have to be careful. If I join a high-level team it will be more difficult. Also, overseas people don’t understand Chinese players well.”
Gaining a foothold in Everton’s first team will prove tough for Li. But for a player who was vilified after China’s failure to qualify for France 98, Li has shown character and maturity beyond his years in bouncing back.
Now he has an even greater challenge ahead.
Club Everton (Eng)
Born September 18, 1977, in Shenyang
Previous club Liaoning Fushan
International debut January 1997, v United States
International caps 82 (5 goals)