When you write a blog, you have a lot of freedom. For example, if you intended to write a post for your favorite player’s birthday, but then you managed to go out and drink too much, you can always just post it the next day. Whether or not anyone chooses to read said post, that’s up to them.
Li Tie’s only a few years older than me, but he was a player who I watched a lot when he was coming up. He was part of an amazing generation of Liaoning footballers, quite possibly the greatest group of Chinese footballers from one province ever. And he was the best.
He led that great group of kids and almost brought Liaoning a title two years in a row, falling just short twice, before the team was disbanded and he headed off to Everton. Before making the trip to the UK, he was a crucial member on China’s one (and to date only) team to ever make it to the World Cup. At the time, Bora Milutinovic (Milu), China’s coach, said that while all other players could be replaced, there was only one Li Tie.
Li’s style was true to his Dongbei roots, hard on the pitch, the classic working man’s favorite, never any flash, just going all out all the time. During his career, the goals he scored could be counted on a single hand, but it wasn’t about scoring, it was about controlling the ball, starting the attack, and most of all, ending other team’s attacks. He also had a bit of a temper, racking up red cards and playing very physically. In Chinese, tie means iron, and that’s how Li played on the pitch.
In his first year at Everton, Tie Zi adjusted to the English game right away, featuring in almost every game, typically as a starter, for a side that was flying high. Just as it looked like Li was going to be a regular feature for years to come, Li was brought on as a sub in the last two minutes of a game against Arsenal, he proceeded to get 2 yellow cards in those 2 minutes.
After that, injuries plagued his year, including one that kept him out for most of the season, suffered during a national team practice. Li was never the same after that, in his first game back for Everton’s reserves, he reinjured the leg and was out for another season.
The Iron Man turned out not to be so iron, injury after injury kept him out of the lineup and all but ended his career in England, a move to Sheffield United didn’t help him see any more time on the pitch and after some time, he was headed back to China, to Sheffield’s sister side in Chengdu. After a season with the Chengdu Blades, Li headed back home to Shenyang, where he assisted Liaoning in earning promotion to the Chinese Super League.
He gave Liaoning two good seasons, but after an injury at the end of last year, he’s all but retired now. If this has sounded too much like an obituary, in part it is, a sad goodbye to potential that was never realized due to injuries. He could have been China’s best export and a real national team hero, but instead he left us all wondering what may have been. He’s always been around the game, so it’s not beyond the realm of imagination that he ends up managing Liaoning in the years to come and maybe, one day, even in the national team setup.
So with that, happy belated birthday, Tie Zi, wishing you the best of luck in the future.