It is no secret that China does not have the most illustrious footballing history. The most populous nation on Earth, China have only ever qualified for one World Cup, in which they lost every game, currently sit 82nd in the FIFA rankings and have never won a game at an Olympic Games. The stats are damning and plentiful; but in a long line of failure, there is one man who can instill some pride in the footballing history of China. Born in 1905, Lee Wai Tong is still widely regarded as China’s finest gift to the world of football, and often tied with Paulino Alcantara as the greatest Asian player in history.
Like most nations, China have experienced a so-called ‘Golden Generation’. For the Chinese, this came in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Even in the countries finest squad, Lee Wai Tong stood head and shoulders above his teammates, both literally and figuratively. Also referred to as Li Huitang, Tong made his debut for the national team at just 18. Still only 18, he rose to national fame. In a game against Japan, the teenager completed a five minute hat-trick, and subsequently became known as the ‘King of Football’, a label that would stick to him until the day he retired, over a quarter of a century later, aged 43.
In 1976, a German magazine took on the task of naming the greatest players in the history of the game. The top 5 were made up of the familiar names of Pele, Puskas, Di Stefano and Sir Stanley Matthews, and one lesser known individual, listed as ‘Huitang’. Described as the ‘Soccer King of Asia’ and having scored 1,260 career goals, Tong was in among some esteemed peers. Like so many pre-war players, our understanding of Tong is limited. There is almost no surviving footage of him in action remaining, and as such, like so many of his contemporaries, his ability is often wildly over and underplayed. In China, the tale of Tong is legendary, and it is difficult to decipher the fact from the fiction given the vast mysticism which surrounds China’s greatest ever footballer. Even if only half of his story is true, it is still a fascinating one and one worth telling.
Born in 1905, Tong was first introduced to football at the age of 4, but brought up by a very poor family, he had to make do with oranges and bags of sand as footballs. He joined South China AA at 17, and was quickly thrown into the first team. A year later, the national team had taken note. His hat-trick against Japan established him as the nation’s finest player, less than a year into his career. Standing at almost 5 foot 11, Tong was markedly taller than the majority of his peers. Despite this, he began his career as a left winger. It didn’t take long for his shooting abilities to be spotted though, and he was quickly converted into a striker.
His goal scoring was legendary, and whilst the figure of 1,260 is difficult to prove, he was certainly the most prolific player in China throughout his career. The most notable elements of his play were his fierce shots, burning pace and ability to fire shots off when seemingly off-balance. In a career which produced over 1,000 goals, it is said only 5 were headers. Despite being so prolific, Tong was far from a poacher, and disliked heading the ball, in an era when such a choice was understandable. As such, Tong claimed he grew a tendency for shooting from distance, in order to prevent himself from having to get into the box and head the ball.
Legend has it that Tong’s fearsome strike was a result of his training with a ball made of sand in his early days, which required him to hit a ball with considerable venom. He once scored seven goals in a single game for South China, a world record at the time, in which one of his goals managed to break the net, further fueling the mysticism surrounding the power in which he could hit a ball. It is also said that some goalkeepers would rather move out the way when seeing Tong unleash a shot than try and prevent it finding its way into the back of the net.
At club level, Tong was enormously successful. He spent the vast majority of his career at South China AA, where he established the club as the most successful in Hong Kong, winning 8 league titles in his time there. At international level, he played for a China team which was the best in Asia at the time. China went 13 years unbeaten in competitive games between 1923 and 1936, Tong made his debut in 1923, some indication of his worth to the team. Spearheaded by their starman, China won 5 consecutive Far Eastern Championships in 1923, 1925, 1927, 1930 and 1934, Tong played in all 5 and even managed the national team for the 1934 tournament, despite being only 28 years of age.
In 1936, China were set to compete in Olympic football for the first time in their history, and becoming the joint first Asian team to do so, along with Japan. 220,000 Yuan was required for the team to travel and compete in Berlin, but the Government would only provide 170,000 Yuan. Consequently, the China team arranged a number of exhibition games in an attempt to raise sufficient funds for the trip. In the end, it took 27 friendly games against the likes of Vietnam, Singapore, India, Indonesia and Malaysia, but the money was raised. However, after such a busy and hectic schedule, the China squad was largely fatigued. In their first game, China were defeated 2-0 by Great Britain, after two goals in 5 minutes. Despite only playing a solitary game, Tong impressed, and Arsenal enquired about his services. Eventually, discussions broke down, this was largely thought to be because by the time of the 1936 Olympics, Tong was already 31 years old. French side Red Star Saint-Ouen (now Red Star F.C.) also showed interest, inviting Tong for a trial, but the Chinese international declined, opting to remain at South China.
On his return to China, his career was disrupted, firstly by the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II shortly after that. Tong was asked to continue to play for South China after Japan took control of Hong Kong but refused to play under the colonial power; choosing instead to play in exhibition games to raise funds for the war effort, strengthening his image as a national hero. Tong remained the outstanding player in China into his late 30’s, before retiring aged 43.
In truth, it is difficult to accurately evaluate Tong’s true ability. Evaluating any pre-war player is difficult given how the game has evolved since then, and evaluating a player playing in the arguably lesser Asian leagues in the period is a near-enough impossible task. One can say confidently that Tong remains a shining star in a nation without a proud footballing past. His legacy lives on in China, where monuments of him have been erected. He managed the China national team three times before passing away in 1979, and was even honoured by the Queen for his contribution to the game, whilst working for FIFA in 1966. A Chinese documentary of his life was produced in 2014, simply entitled ‘Eastern Pele’.