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China international Li Lei on his arrival at GC.

The Chinese soccer international wants to learn and adapt quickly. Sometimes he misses his family and writes in a diary.

Li Lei at the Grasshoppers training ground in Niederhasli.

Annick Ramp / NZZ

“Cao Meng” is Chinese and means “Heugümper” in dialect, “locust” is in High German, or “Grasshopper” in English. Pronouncing “Cao Meng” correctly is somewhat challenging. It takes several attempts before Li Lei is satisfied. The sounds must be articulated in the palate as in gargling. Finally, Li Lei stops the attempts with an affirmative «Exactly!».

Li Lei is sitting in a meeting room on the GC campus in Niederhasli. The head of media is there, as well as an employee from the office who speaks Chinese and Swiss German. Before that, Li Lei made herself available to the NZZ photographer and helped with carrying the equipment. The 29-year-old only has a smattering of English, which he can use on the football pitch and in the locker room. For the first time he speaks with a European journalist. He speaks at length and eagerly in his own language, the GC employee summarizes.

When GC announces the move just before Christmas, Li Lei’s signature is highlighted by China’s national flag, with yellow stars on a red background. The message: Look, GC not only has Chinese owners in the background, now GC also has a player from China on the pitch. It should also be visible in the country of the owners who owns the Grasshoppers in Zurich. China’s state TV broadcaster CCTV broadcasts a report lasting several minutes when Li Lei lands in Kloten in early January. He has been a national player for two and a half years, has made five appearances so far and should become a permanent fixture in the national squad.

Li Lei after arriving in Kloten.

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Li Lei first heard about GC last summer, his agent had reported interest from Switzerland. “After the end of my contract with Beijing Guoan, I wanted to take the step to Europe,” says Li Lei. GC was one of several possibilities. He noticed that GC had been watching him closely, the club was also able to show him perspectives, so he decided to make the change.

Actually, Li Lei should have left Beijing in the summer when GC was looking for a second player in the left couloir alongside Ermir Lenjani. Because his contract with Beijing Guoan only ended at the end of the year, GC saved the transfer costs. Now Li Lei is in Zurich, the first player from China.

GC-TV with Chinese subtitles

That fuels fears that the former flagship club of the Zurich elite, in their second year under the billionaire Fosun group, is increasingly becoming a hub where players are pushed around between China, Fosun club Wolverhampton Wanderers and clubs in Portugal, where in turn the players’ agent Jorge Mendes is closely networked as a Fosun ally.

“We work in a global market,” says GC sports director Seyi Olofinjana, “Li Lei corresponds exactly to our profile – the sporting criteria always have top priority.” Of course, the fact that GC has Chinese owners plays a role, but this fact is never decisive in sporting matters such as a transfer. “We benefit from our connections, for example to Asia or to Wolverhampton,” says Olofinjana, “if Li Lei is used for the first time in the test match in Wil, for example, and thousands upon thousands watch the stream in China, we are happy to accept that, because that bottom line is good for GC.” When coach Giorgio Contini comments on Li Lei on the club’s own TV channel, his statements are provided with Chinese subtitles.

Contini is happy with the new player and looks forward to working together. He was already informed about the possible transfer in the summer, which is important, “I make suggestions in constant exchange with the president, the head of sport and the management – ​​but as a coach I don’t decide on the club’s strategy, I lead the team in the daily work.” Li Lei has settled in well, but he will need time to adjust.

“The training intensity is higher and I’m not used to the cold temperatures either,” says Li Lei about his first impressions. He had prepared for the changes, “but it is something different to think about it beforehand and to experience it now – the difficulties are greater than I thought.” Because of the time difference, he misses contact with his family, he still lives in the hotel. “I write in a diary, listen to music before I go to bed between nine and ten o’clock,” he says and smiles, “but I’m not suffering, football is my job.”

What is laughed at?

Li Lei is experienced and doesn’t seem like a stranger looking for support. Contini says he is surprised at how open the newcomer is to the new environment. Li Lei is happy about the first German words and tries them out via SMS. “Sometimes I don’t understand exactly what people are laughing about in the dressing room, for example – in any case, it’s usually a bit louder there than I know from China,” says Li Lei.

It is unclear whether Li Lei will leave any traces in Switzerland. Players from China have always had a difficult time in Europe. Sun Jihai was a regular at Manchester City until 2008, while Li Tie was a regular at Everton fifteen years ago. But otherwise footballers from China have failed in most cases since European clubs discovered the Chinese market seven or eight years ago and, conversely, Chinese financiers bought clubs in Europe.

Zhang Xizhe at VfL Wolfsburg is an example of a failed player. Li Lei is beaming. “Zhang Xizhe is a friend of mine,” he says. He talked a lot with him about Europe after his short trip to Germany and got tips that should help now, says Li Lei. He and playmaker Zhang Xizhe were teammates at Beijing Guoan for many years. “But I also know European football thanks to my coaches at Guoan,” says Li Lei.

Roger Schmidt, coach in Paderborn, Salzburg, Leverkusen and currently with PSV Eindhoven leader in the Netherlands, was Li Lei’s coach at Guoan for two and a half years, during one season the Croatian Slaven Bilic. “I think I already have an idea of ​​how European football works,” says Li Lei. He also wants to learn for later, in order to pass on his knowledge to young players as a coach at home.

He started kicking as a boy, after school, whenever there was time. When China qualified for the World Cup for the only time in 2001, there was a lot of football hype. The communist government recognized the value of football and, among other things, ordered the introduction of structures for young people.

This enabled Li Lei to train as a junior. “My father supported me, my mother was skeptical – until I played in the first team, both were satisfied,” says Li Lei. He became a professional soccer player in the Chinese Super League and most recently played for Guoan, the big club in Beijing, for six years.

Get to know GC colleagues – in Japan

Already tomorrow, Saturday, Li Lei will stop getting used to it in Europe and fly back to Asia. China’s national team will be in Japan for points in the World Cup qualifiers next Thursday, then in Vietnam. The situation is six points behind Australia with four laps to go almost hopeless. But Li Lei bravely says: “I believe that we can make it to Qatar – it is the greatest thing for any footballer to be able to play for his country.”

The date lets him miss the start of the second half of the season in Sion. But in Japan, too, he might meet new GC companions that he hasn’t met yet: Hayao Kawabe, for example. The Japanese international was bought from Wolverhampton GC in the winter, he trained in England but is now back in Niederhasli. Unlike Toti Gomes who will stay at Wanderers. GC signed the Japanese Ayumu Seko for Gomes, and like Kawabe, Seko is in the Japanese squad.

So for the first time ever, the three GC players Li Lei, Ayumu Seko and Hayao Kawabe could stand together on the pitch in the distant Saitama stadium – and get to know each other. That’s called globalization.

What does Heugümper mean again in Chinese? I agree. In Japanese, the GC heraldic animal is called “Batta”.

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