The Premier League is massive all over the world. Helped out in part to the huge sums paid out by TV companies all over the World. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest markets is China. But what is surprising is what still holds the record for the most-watched Premier League match ever in Chines TV history. Move over Man Utd vs Liverpool, Arsenal vs Man Utd, and Liverpool vs Man City—this match-up featured two unlikely stars that captured the hearts of millions. Prepare to delve into the gripping tale of how Chinese footballers Li Tie and Sun Jihai created a sensation that had the Chinese TV audience glued to their screens.
There was a time when soccer in China promised a brighter future, buoyed by the participation of national heroes like Li Tie and Sun Jihai in the 2002 World Cup. Nicknamed “China’s David Beckham,” Li Tie’s stint at Everton and Sun Jihai’s time with Manchester City made headlines. However, on January 1, 2003, when these two footballing icons faced off in what became the “Chinese derby,” the Premier League witnessed a historic surge in viewership.
As Everton and Manchester City clashed on the pitch, a staggering 360 million Chinese fans eagerly watched their country’s finest footballers go head to head. To put it into perspective, the “Chinese derby” nearly doubled the viewership of the 2002 FIFA World Cup match between China and Brazil, a momentous occasion that had drawn 330 million viewers. The allure of witnessing their own stars shine on the world stage was too tempting for Chinese football fans to resist.
With Kevin Keegan, the then-manager of Manchester City, hailing Sun and Li as the best Chinese players in the world, the match was deemed the “most-watched football match outside of a World Cup.” The excitement was palpable, with over 100 journalists and executives making the journey from China to Liverpool to witness this historic encounter. Goodison Park saw one dedicated Chinese fan proudly donning an Everton shirt, waving the national flag and donning a China cap—an emblem of the nation’s swelling passion for the beautiful game.
For Chinese fans, the emergence of Li Tie and Sun Jihai on the global stage provided a glimmer of hope for the future of their footballing dreams. The influx of Chinese viewers transformed Everton into a global sensation, rivalling even Manchester United in popularity. However, the “White Paper on China’s Football,” released two years before the derby, aimed at reforming Chinese football, struggled to translate into on-field success. Each defeat was a bitter blow to the nation’s hopes.
While the Premier League became a battleground for Sun and Li to showcase their talents, their overseas careers were not without hurdles. Li Tie faced a series of injuries during his tenure at Everton, curtailing his appearances and ultimately forcing him to retire prematurely. Sun Jihai, too, grappled with injury setbacks and encountered difficulties in his club and national team journey.
Their contribution to Chinese football remains immeasurable. Their impact inspired millions of Chinese football fans and paved the way for future generations to chase their dreams. The unforgettable “Chinese derby” remains a beacon of hope, symbolising the passion and potential of Chinese football on the global stage.
The most-watched Premier League match in China may not have featured the heavyweight clashes between iconic English clubs. Still, it showcased the immense power of football to unite countries and transcend boundaries. While Li Tie and Sun Jihai’s journeys may have had their share of hardships, their lasting legacy as trailblazing pioneers will forever be etched in the hearts of Chinese football fans.