The football philanthropist

By Liang Chen Source:Global Times Published: 2014-6-20 5:03:02

Gao Leilei (center) tries to block Portuguese football star Luis Figo of visiting Real Madrid Leyendas in a friendly match in Beijing on September 20, 2013. Photo: IC

 You may well have heard of ping-pong diplomacy - but "football philanthropy"? That's what Gao Leilei, a former 20-year veteran of Beijing's Guo'an Football Club, calls his latest venture in life.

For two decades, he had tried to challenge the Chinese football system, long plagued by match-fixing, crooked referees and illegal gambling. Later he worked outside the system by participating in overseas football matches as an advocate of what he calls "football philanthropy."

Although he has retired as a professional football player in 2011, Gao continues his cause as a philanthropist.

"As a former football player, I hope I can change people's negative impression of us, and I also want to show people that Chinese football players have positive powers," the bearded 34-year-old smiles.

Since 2006, Gao, a teetotaler who doesn't smoke, has saved every penny he can to help children in need. By that time in his career, his yearly salary was around 300,000 yuan ($48,000) - not much perhaps for a professional player - but Gao managed to spare a third of his income to sponsor students who could not afford to go to school, and even helped build schools for them. So far, he has assisted over 100 students.

Betrayer of Chinese football

Gao was recruited into football when he was 19. While most of his peers were studying at universities, he had already begun to travel around the world participating in diverse competitions. His career peaked in 1999, when he scored a goal from midfield that equalized Guo'an with Liaoning in China's then football league Class A Division.

That gave him the opportunity to aim for the national team but despite his skills and talents, Gao was weeded out from competition. Later, Gao discovered this was because, he says, he had "no guanxi [personal connections] with the national team." Gao insists he was forced to leave China due to the dire situation of its football.

Frustrated with the unjust treatment, Gao transferred and played abroad for clubs in Finland, Australia and the United States. Travelling broadened his horizons, but Gao soon realized that, although he could not change the overall situation, he could do something to change people's attitudes toward Chinese football players' images - starting with his own.

"People have negative impression of football players because there are always scandals, but I want to change people's attitudes toward us by building schools and helping people," Gao, now the father of a 1-year-old boy, says.

Since 2007, Gao has been devoting time and energy to popularizing football and other sports activities in rural areas in Sichuan Province. Using his achievements as a sportsman, he has also accumulated a reputation for planting the seed of sport into students' hearts and inspiring their eagerness for football.

In the last few years, he has spent over 500,000 yuan and helped build two separate schools in Sichuan and Guangxi. In addition, Gao takes time to visit schools and coach students in how to play the World Cup sport.

"I believe playing football and other sports can bring hope and positive power for children, which might empower and encourage them," Gao tells the Global Times.

Helping is giving

Gao says his philanthropic bent was greatly influenced by his father.

"My father was a person with good will. He used to help a lot of people when he was alive," Gao recalls, telling of how his father once sold his watch and bike (then, highly desirable items) to collect money for students who could not afford sportswear.

"Without uniforms, they could not attend the sports meetings, so my father bought ones for them," Gao says.

In 2007, Gao left Guo'an and went abroad for further study. Before he left, he offered 100,000 yuan to a local NGO, Maitian Planning, to build a school in Mabian, a poverty-stricken county in Sichuan. This was also the first school built to commemorate Gao's father.

Now, the school has organized a students' football team that will participate in competitions and games held in Sichuan.

"I am so pleased that my love for football has influenced local students," Gao admits, saying he insists on helping students even when old sports injuries, to his thighs, are bothering him.

In early 2010, Gao accepted an invitation from Wang Tao, coach of Beijing Baxi Football club, and returned to China to play.

"Since China launched a campaign against football gambling, the atmosphere has been purified, and I thought it might be a good chance, so I returned," Gao explains.

The campaign has seen a huge number of coaches, football players and judges arrested and jailed since it began in 2009.

Advocator of football

Since then, Gao has been participating more in public service, as well as popularizing football. But football philanthropy is also a team game - Gao has begun inviting fellow players and athletes, such as Sang Xue, to help raise money for children's sports.

Despite criticism of the so-called "black whistle" that haunts Chinese football - the stain of corruption - Gao believes that education is vital to purify the atmosphere and shape a healthier environment for the development of Chinese football.

He says he will continue to participate in these charitable activities, as well as promoting them through TV shows, launching off-line activities with football fans and working as a volunteer coach in football clubs.

"It seems that I have returned to the football pitch in different manners," Gao jokes.

Meanwhile, Gao continues to look for opportunities for youngsters to enjoy the same privileges as him, organizing young football lovers to go abroad and visit top clubs each year, just as he once played for them. Indeed, Gao hopes that as his students grow up, they might achieve his own Chinese dream: the great revival of domestic football.

Newspaper headline: Former player tries to change image of Chinese soccer

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