Li Wengang is known as Rossi the fans emperor in China
He organised China’s first fans club
He followed nearly every home match of the national team since 1986
Rossi is not a Chinese name. It is, though, one that’s very popular among Chinese football fans. If you bump into a Chinese supporter and ask him about Rossi, the answer will probably be:"Rossi? I know him, he is the fans' emperor."
All that began in the 1982 FIFA World Cup Spain™, when Paolo Rossi scored six times to finish as the tournament top-scorer and to help Italy to their third world title. Overnight, the name of Rossi was on the lips of football lovers across Anshan, an industrial city 400 miles north to Beijing.
Li Wengang was then a 38-year-old power substation employee known for his footballing passion among the local supporters. He became extremely busy during that World Cup, heading to the fans' meeting instead of home after work. He was needed to wrap up the day's matches. He answered every question from his fellow enthusiasts – many about Rossi.
For his envious football knowledge as well as his resemblance to the Italian legend, it was not long before the nickname Rossi took hold.
Becoming the fans' emperor
Li became obsessed with the game. He began to dream that one day China team would emulate Italy's feat and become world champions. He decided to show his support by following the team during every home game.
He asked his boss for leave to travel across the country for the national team's fixtures. In the process, he made friends with supporters nationwide and was always the centre in the fans' meetings.
“For all these years since 1986, I have tried to follow the national team for every home match, missing just six games,” he told FIFA.com.
While he would go on to lose his job, he opened a restaurant, ‘Rossi Pub’, which immediately served as a venue for the fans' meetings. Free meals and beers were on offer for his fellow die-hards – be they friends or strangers – travelling afar to see him.
"I made some money, but I spent much more on hosting those fans and friends. It was football that united us," he said.
Launched China’s first fans club in 1986
Traversed over half of the country by bicycle between 1992-93 to show his support for the game
First named the “fans' emperor” at a national fans event in December 1992 in Chengdu
Made it to five FIFA World Cups including Russia 2018
After China’s near-miss in qualifying for the 1990 FIFA World Cup Italy, Li decided to do something to lift the flagging spirit of both fans and players. He embarked on a mammoth bicycle tour, traversing over half of the country across 16 months from 1992-93, meeting hundreds and thousands of fans calling for their support.
It proved an event which laid the ground for his status as the symbolic figure of Chinese fans. In a national fans’meeting in Chengdu in 1992, he was unanimously named as “Rossi the fans’ emperor”.
Today, his nickname is so well-known that few are aware what his real name even is. He has become the embodiment of Chinese fans for his love of the game. He is invited on television as a guest commentator during important national team matches and is present at major football events. He published his biography last year, while his trademark cowboy hat, emblazoned with China’s national flag, is preserved at the FIFA World Football Museum.
“I have made a lot of sacrifices in pursuing my dream as a football fan. But it’s proven worthy. I have witnessed so many great matches, I have followed the national team through so many years and, above all, I have made so many friends.”
"My wife may have left me [for my passion for football], but deep in my heart there is an 18-year-old girl whom I am waiting to marry – that is football," he concluded.