It was a momentous occasion for Chinese football. Lóngzhī Duì had finally produced a player capable of joining one of the world’s leading teams. What’s more, he was only 18. His career was only beginning.
In 2004, the English footballing community first encountered Dong Fangzhuo, a pacey striker plying his trade with Dalian Shide, thanks to Manchester United. In the early weeks of January, the Red Devils agreed a £500,000 transfer for Dong, which could rise to £3.5m based on appearances. Although a relatively small sum, even at that time, eyebrows were nevertheless raised. Was this a cynical marketing ploy by United to tap into the Chinese market? Or had United seen something special in him? The answer, 15 years later, appears to be both.
On the marketing side, Dong’s transfer to the Red Devils immediately piqued the interest of numerous Chinese fans, many of whom had yet to see him play. Given United’s reputation for cultivating young players, there was every possibility that once given the opportunity, Dong could be with the club for years. This potentially meant years of jersey sales, mugs, pencil cases etched with his face. After all, although hugely successful on the pitch, Park Ji-Sung was equally important for bringing thousands of South Korean fans to Manchester United.
While Dong didn’t possess immediate star power, there were indications that the club sought to profit from his nationality almost immediately. In their 2005 summer tour of Asia, United fielded him in three of their games, despite the fact he would be ineligible for the upcoming Premier League season, something the English media were quick to comment on. Marketing aside, the Chinese forward impressed on the tour, even notching a goal against Hong Kong in the opening game.
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Although it’s undeniable that Dong offered United a new revenue base, he did come with bags of potential. The same year United signed Dong, he proved to the world he was more than a name. Playing for China in the 2004 AFC Youth Championship, he emerged as one of the most promising young players in the tournament, commanding the Chinese front line and helping the side reach the final.
That year he was shortlisted for the FIFPro Young Player of the Year Award. The calibre of his fellow nominees – Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Arjen Robben and Bastian Schweinsteiger – reveals the high esteem in which Dong was held.
Although he was ineligible to play for United owing to work permit issues, he was doing enough internationally to entice United fans. Indeed, it’s funny now to read forums from 2004, which are salivating about a future line up of Giuseppe Rossi, Rooney and Dong.
Royal Antwerp fans proved equally enthusiastic. As United’s feeder club in Belgium, Antwerp fans saw Dong loaned to the side following his Premier League transfer. In his first half-season in the Belgian second tier, he netted one goal in nine appearances, which was a respectable figure given that he didn’t speak the language, often came off the bench, and was playing at a much higher level than before. The following season, he found himself once again in Belgium, but by now he had settled into his surroundings. Eighteen goals in 29 league appearances was a testament to that.
The next season, 2006/07, would see Dong called up to the China national team. First names for friendly matches, he did enough to earn a place at the 2007 Asian Cup, an achievement that would have far-reaching consequences for Dong’s club career. His international caps were enough proof for the English authorities that he was worthy of a work permit and, in January 2007, the striker was recalled from Antwerp and given a much-coveted United squad number.
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After three years of hard graft in Belgium, Dong’s United career finally seemed to be taking off. Thirty-four goals in 67 appearances for Antwerp suggested a bright future.
Unfortunately things never really took off in England. Almost immediately Dong was put in United’s reserve squad to become accustomed to the English game. Although invaluable experience was gained in the reserves, he struggled to break through to the first team. While he lined-up for United in a charity match in March 2007, it wasn’t until May that he made his official debut when he partnered United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjær against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. The Red Devils had already wrapped up that season’s title, which perhaps explains Dong’s involvement.
The 2007/08 campaign would see him play just twice for the United first team – a 2–0 defeat to Coventry in the League Cup and a Champions League group stage match against Roma. An injury in the latter half of the season would curb his chances of another go. His United career was faltering and would soon be cut short. Following his omission from the 2008/09 squad, Dong and Manchester United mutually terminated his contract to allow the striker to gain first-team football elsewhere.
China’s once-great prospect returned to his homeland to revive his career. Heading to Dalian Shide, the side with which it all began, Dong failed to live up to his now enlarged reputation. No goals in 26 appearances offered little encouragement. Remarkably, in 2009 Dong returned to Europe following a successful trial with Polish club Legia Warsaw.
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After a string of impressive pre-season performances, he signed an 18-month deal with an option for two more years. Unfortunately he proved sub-par for the Ekstraklasa, managing just two games before being released from his contract. The following seasons would see Dong ply his trade in both Portugal and Armenia before returning once more to China.
From 2012, Dong would spend three years in China’s second tier seeking to revive his faltering career. Seven goals in 25 appearances in his debut season with Hunan Billows proved promising but, once more, his form dropped. He played the 2014/15 season for Hebei Zhongji, where he scored two in seven before being released from his contract. He hasn’t played professional football since.
So what happened to China’s great prospect? Is it unfair to label him as a cynical marketing ploy as many have done, or was his simply one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s poor transfers? The answer is probably both. There’s no doubt that Dong’s attractiveness to United was heightened by his appeal to Chinese fans, but it must be remembered that in 2004 he appeared to be a genuine prospect. His brief time in Belgium demonstrated as much.
He moved countries and continents to pursue his dream with one of football’s biggest clubs. His story is one of thousands of footballers who, despite showing early promise, slipped through the cracks. Rather than a point of comedy, Dong Fangzhou’s story is an unfortunate reminder of the fickleness of football.
By Conor Heffernan @PhysCstudy