Everton's China Connections

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Tim Cahill, Jo and now Nikica Jelavic. Three former Blues who have made the move to the Chinese Super League.

Although Cahill’s time with Shanghai Shenhua came to an end earlier this week, the Goodison favourite was one of the leaders of a trend that has grown gradually over a number of years but exploded since the turn of 2016.

Indeed, it’s suddenly become less and less surprising to see stars from Europe’s top leagues head to a rising force in world football.

The likes of Ramires, Gervinho, Alex Teixeria, Fredy Guarin and Jackson Martinez have all moved from Champions League sides to Asia – and all before the age of 30.

They’re not alone. Familiar names such as Ezequiel Lavezzi, Stephane Mbia, Gael Kakuta, Luis Fabiano, Obafemi Martins, Jo and Jelavic have also followed a path the likes of Didier Drogba, Paulinho, Demba Ba, Asamoah Gyan and our own Blue Kangaroo illuminated before them.

The competition looks set to go from strength to strength with spending in this window already surpassing the Premier League’s collective outlay in January – and there’s still a week to go for the total to rise further.

But do you remember when the reverse was in vogue? 

In the early 2000s, some of China’s top players arrived in Europe hoping to make their name.

And two of their very best attempted to do just that at Goodison Park…

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It's 2002; Chinese electronics giant Keijan have just become Everton’s shirt sponsors. As part of the new deal, Chines international footballers Li Tie and Li Weifeng were handed loan deals with the Blues after participating in the South Korea and Japan World Cup.

A versatile midfielder who would rack up 92 caps for his country, Li Tie actually made his debut on the same day as one Wayne Rooney, and his 29 league appearances that season helped the Toffees to a seventh-place finish.

What's more, having impressed fans and manager David Moyes, he subsequently signed a three-year contract in the summer of 2003 to extend his stay on the Blue half of Merseyside.

Injuries would unfortunately prevent him from repeating his form and he left the Club in 2006 having made 44 appearances, joining Sheffield United before returning to his homeland with Chengdu Blades.

He later had a two-season spell with Liaoning Whowin, before officially announcing his retirement from the game in the summer of 2011.

Li Tie turned to coaching after football and is now manager of Hebei China Fortune, where he will begin the 2016 season with a new-look squad that includes four of the aforementioned imports - Lavezzi, Gervinho, Mbia and Kakuta.

Li Weifeng, meanwhile, only made two appearances for the Toffees during his spell on Merseyside – a 1-0 league defeat at Southampton and a 3-0 win away against Wrexham in what was then the Worthington Cup.

The defender later continued his career back in China, taking his total of international caps to a whopping 112 – the most anyone has managed for the nation to date.

Neither Li Tie or Li Weifeng found the net for the Blues in their time in L4, but the former did play his part in making history when Everton’s contest with Manchester City on New Year’s Day 2003 was watched by an estimated TV audience of 360 million people – a record at the time.

The Citizens also had a China international of their own in the form of full-back Sun Jihai and, as such, the world’s most populous nation tuned in en masse to watch two of their heroes battle it out in the global juggernaut that is the Premier League.

Neither man came out on top as the game ended in a 2-2 draw but, given the riches, a bumper TV deal and big names making headlines 13 years on, was this the moment that put the wheels in motion for the Chinese Super League to reach these new and serious heights? Quite possibly.

Of course, Goodison wasn't the only destination for hopeful Chinese exports.

As well as Jihai - arguably the most successful of the five Chinese players to appear in the Premier League – Dong Fangzhuo also headed to Manchester, making a much-publicised but ultimately unsuccessful move to City's rivals United. The other, Zheng Zi, fared far better during a two-and-a-half year stint with Charlton Athletic, turning out 70 times for the Addicks.

It seems moves in the opposite direction will now be the ones that dominate football discussion going forward. Thanks to Li Tie and Li Weifeng however, Everton will always have it's place in the annals of China's footballing history.

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