China's prodigal son hopes to make amends
Peter Simpson in Beijing
Li Weifeng has told the soccer family that spurned him three years ago that he has turned a new leaf. Dubbed 'Qiu Ba' (soccer bully) for his violent play, China's disgraced former national captain declared during a public act of repentance this week that he was finally ready to make good.
'A few years ago, like many young people, I had no idea what I was really searching for,' said the former angry-boy-lost, now a 32-year-old veteran. 'I did not take my career and life very seriously and I lost something during that time. I think it was a period of development. You mature by learning from your mistakes.'
By mistakes he means the long list of footballing felonies that forced him into exile in January 2009.
Stripped of his captaincy and thrown out of the national squad for violent conduct in 2008, Li, a hero of the 2002 World Cup, was banned for eight matches for a trademark violent tackle when playing for his last Chinese club, Wuhan Guanggu.
When Wuhan pleaded with the Chinese Football Association (CFA) for a reprieve, officials lobbed the book at the club and their feral star. Government sports chiefs were still fuming and embarrassed by Li's choking of a Japanese player in the East Asian Championship in 2008.
Wuhan fans took to the streets in protest against the CFA and in support of their talisman. Li defiantly said he would refuse to serve the ban. As is the norm in Chinese soccer, a face-off followed, and acrimony and chaos prevailed.
In an act of spite, the club boycotted the Chinese Super League (CSL) halfway through the season, sealing the fate they were desperately trying to avoid - relegation.
Li became an outcast. His hot-headedness and recalcitrant ways were deemed unacceptable. 'All the CSL clubs are keeping away from him,' admitted Li's agent at the time, Yu Guoqiong.
Teams from South Korea's K-League and Japan's J-League circled around the troubled talent. Leading K-League club Suwon Bluewings pounced, and signed up Li with a two-year contract reportedly worth US$400,000. After a rocky start - he was sent off in his debut against Sparta Prague in Hong Kong - Li underwent a period of enlightenment and soon saw the errors of his ways.
Suwon fans worried the fiery Chinese - who has Mars, the Greek god of war, tattooed on his back - might prove to be destabilising. But a calmer Li emerged over the next two seasons and supporters affectionately nicknamed the 1.81-metre star the 'Great Wall of China' for his consistent back-four performances.
He helped the club win the K-League's FA Cup in 2009 and 2010, and was twice nominated for Asian Player of the Year thanks to strong showings in the Asian Champions League. By the end of his contract, the fans saluted their star from the other side of the Yellow Sea by chanting their appreciation in Chinese.
Now's he's back home, signed by Tianjin Teda in January and placed on a fast-track rehabilitation programme by the CFA to help ignite the country's World Cup hopes.
After a 33-month absence, he has been recalled to plug holes in a struggling national side plagued by injuries and inexperience ahead of China's 2014 World Cup preliminaries in June. Last month, in friendlies, he played a pivotal role in China's 1-1 draw against New Zealand and 2-0 win over Honduras.
Sinners may repent at their leisure but the reborn, wiser, older Li has wasted no time reasserting his talent since returning to the fold.
The media and fans agree, albeit warily, the shamed former captain still has a part to play in China's long struggle for membership at the crucible of football in Brazil in 2014.
This afternoon, Li is set to line up for Tianjin against Changchun Yatai, under the paternal eye of China's adopted favourite son, Arie Haan, the Dutchman who took over from the Serb Bora Milutinovic as national coach soon after the 2002 World Cup.
There is no doubting the return of Li's physical presence is also a boon for the 2010 CSL runners-up as they chase the top prize this season.
It was his imposing stature and lion's heart in the otherwise lightweight Chinese national side at the 2002 Korea-Japan World Cup that saw English side Everton sign him for a season. But he failed to make an impact and returned to China to play for Shenzhen Jianlibao, and embarked on his mission of self-destruction.
Whether he figures in head coach Gao Hongbo's long-term plans for Brazil remains to be seen.
China Daily this week speculated that the CFA was forcing Gao to deploy ageing players like Li. Officials are worried Gao's youth-filled national squad will fail to answer the demand from the country's leadership to make emerging China's presence felt on the world's football pitch, too.
The CFA's fears are justified. Youth proved a disappointment at January's Asian Cup in Qatar, with China suffering a humiliating group-stage elimination.
Politics of age and soft power aside, Li's forced absence from the combustible environs of the CSL have served him well; a different, contemplative player has returned.
'We need to speak less and work harder,' said Li of the national squad this week.
'We realised our World Cup dream 10 years ago, and we would hope to do better 10 years on. But we must ask ourselves if we are making enough effort to improve.'
Li says the presence of Japanese and Korean players in the CSL this season should have a positive impact. 'We should take the opportunity to communicate with them and learn their strengths,' he said.
Travel has long been acknowledged to take soul-searching wayfarers on a journey of self-discovery. Likewise for Li, who has obviously scrutinised his homeland from afar.
Though keen to repent for his troubled past, he blamed his behaviour in part on China's football set-up. 'You find culture in Korean soccer and every team has discipline. But many Chinese teams lack a such a tradition and culture,' he said.
He also gave an insight into the perverse, competitive atmosphere that plagues the national team's development.
'Many young Chinese players don't bother with extra practice because they are afraid their teammates will criticise and accuse them of pretending to be diligent in front of coaches and selectors.
'Young Korean players do not do this. They know they must compete at their best with other squad players.'
Li said he was happy to be back under the wing of Haan, his former international team manager. And much to Li's satisfaction, he said Haan clearly had no time for meddling sports officials.
'I have found many things quite similar to Bluewings at Tianjin. It takes only 10 minutes for the coach to complete a pre-match meeting because there are no club officials involved. Our team is just like a big family,' said the reformed prodigal son.
The number of months that Li Weifeng has been absent from China's national squad: 33