Eighteen represents a lucky number for Chinese with those possessing the number said to be blessed with an admirable life. This faith, however, is laughed at by former national team great Li Xiaopeng. Sitting behind a broad desk in his office at the Shandong Football Association, the former China number eighteen explained to FIFA.com what he believes is the key to achievement.
"Hard work is the only ladder from which you can climb to the peak of success and even then a player with the best attributes can't always achieve greatness without sustained efforts," said the 33-year-old, who is in charge of women's football as Deputy Director of the Shandong provincial FA.
Li has long been regarded as one of the most gifted midfielders China has ever produced. Having burst onto the international scene at the 1992 AFC U-16 Youth Championship, Li impressed onlookers in his creative midfield role as China emerged continental winners to book their appearance at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Japan 1993.
When the inaugural professional league commenced in 1994, the untested teenage Li was recruited by his home side Shandong Luneng and so began an illustrious twelve-year association with the club. Indeed, Li only played for one club in his career, a rarity in the modern game, where he helped Shandong to a league and cup double in 1999, before achieving the ultimate on the international stage as he steered China to their first FIFA World Cup™ at Korea/Japan 2002.
A midfield dynamo who used his brain as much as his feet, Li has been known for his broad vision, positional play and defense-shredding passes. His creative talents and scoring flair won him supporters not only from Shandong, but across the country, who have dubbed him as the "Chinese Beckham".
Not surprisingly, "Beckham" didn't go unnoticed by China's coach at the time, Bora Milutinovic, who included him in the national team squad charged with qualifying for Asia's first FIFA World Cup. The Serbian was soon rewarded for his faith when Li helped China to a home 3-0 win over United Arab Emirates to open their final round campaign brightly.
The ground-breaking success took us up amongst Asia's top teams,
"The opener I scored is the goal of my life," recalled Li. That goal put the hosts ahead after only two minutes. Their second came on 19 minutes, when Li set up Qi Hong to nod in from close range before Hao sealed the memorable win a quarter of an hour later, and the world's most populous nation had began their long journey to the world stage.
Despite the fact that Li started the match replacing the injured Li Ming, he won over both Milutinovic and the supporters through his excellent all-round display, holding onto a spot in the midfield throughout the campaign. "The ground-breaking success took us up amongst Asia's top teams," Li says bursting with pride. "Our side consisted of talented players and we reached peak cohesion with a common goal."
Putting back into the game
While co-hosts Korea Republic swept past the likes of Italy and Spain to march into the last four, Li and his teammates finished empty-handed after conceding nine unanswered goals to crash out of the tournament in the opening round. "It felt as if we were brought back down to earth," Li went on. "But the losses against Brazil and Turkey made us aware that we still have our work cut out if we are to compete against the world's best."
Mindful of the need to improve the local game from the grassroots up, Li embarked on his development role as soon as he hung up his boots in 2005, taking charge of junior teams with Shandong Luneng. In March 2008 he was promoted to his current position nurturing a competitive women's side for Shandong in October's National Games where they will play hosts.
"We have a good batch of talented girls but none of them are national team players," says Li. "However whatever results we get, our team will prove to be, you might say, the most industrious." Li concluded with a smile glinting in eyes.
Clubs: Shandong (1994-2005)
National debut: 2 August 2000
Honors: AFC U16 Championship winner (1992), FIFA World Cup finals appearance (2002), Chinese Super League champion (1999), Chinese FA Cup winner (1995, 1999)