The curious case of Dong Fangzhuo
Ahead of his first appearance in a Manchester United shirt in Shanghai in July, Shinji Kagawa was asked about other Asian players who had gone before him to Old Trafford. The first answer was textbook. Park Ji-Sung? "The best Asian player ever, without a doubt," the Japanese star enthused. "Watching him always gave me more motivation." Dong Fangzhuo? "Sorry, I don't know who that is."
Football can be cruel. Dong's story is a cautionary tale of how a teenager from the East, full of hopes and dreams, joined one of the biggest clubs in the world in 2004 only to find himself playing in Armenia in 2011 after years of not really playing at all. With media in Asia linking Manchester City to a number of youngsters in recent weeks - teenage Japanese striker Kosuke Kinoshita is reportedly set to sign, UAE midfielder Omar Abdulrahman has had a trial and young Korean left-back Yoon Suk-Young has been linked to the club - it is perhaps a tale that needs to be told again.
It was not Dong's doing. What 18-year-old would easily resist the call of Sir Alex Ferguson? There were also rumours of interest from Inter Milan and Real Madrid. Even in China, few knew about the striker from Dalian - he had played just a handful of games in the country's top flight.
This was January 2004 when the country had just appeared in its first World Cup and was about to reach the final of the Asian Cup. There were wild stories of 600 million people staying up late to watch Everton take on Manchester City in 2003 because Li Tie and Sun Jihai were wearing the respective shades of blue. When it comes to exaggeration of figures it ranks up there with United's recent claim to have a similar number of fans around the world but one thing could not be disputed -a Chinese player starring for Manchester United would be huge. It was unfortunate for Dong that he was seen as 'The One' both in China and at Old Trafford.
"I am just going there to do my best," Dong said as he signed a deal worth £500,000 that could have risen to £3.5 million. "I know it will not be easy but I am ready for the challenge."
There was no way he was ever going to walk into Sir Alex Ferguson's first team - for a start, he didn't have a work permit. To get around that, he was dispatched to United's feeder club, Royal Antwerp in Belgium. In a city known for diamonds, Dong started to shine with 34 goals in 67 appearances. It was often overlooked that he was in the Belgian second division for all but a handful of games but, even so, it was not a bad return for a teenager having his first taste of Europe.
Anticipation was growing back home, fuelled by comments from Manchester."Dong qualifies for his European passport in December and that is good news for us," Ferguson said in July 2006. "He has played four times for China already, so clearly he has a lot of potential. He has the speed and physicality and his technique is improving all the time."
It was music to the ears of the Chinese media. When Dong landed in Manchester at the end of 2006, the countdown to his debut started. They had to wait until May 2007 and the first sight of a Chinese Red Devil was a bizarre one as he emerged on to the pitch to receive the guard of honour from the likes of John Terry and Michael Essien at Stamford Bridge. United had already won the championship and were preparing for the FA Cup final. The Chinese star was one of a number of unfamiliar faces in the line-up for a meaningless game.
After that poor 0-0 draw, he never appeared again in the league and started just one more match - in the League Cup in September 2007. His third and final appearance was in December as he came off the bench in a Champions League game against Roma, again a meaningless one with United already through to the next stage.
For the rest of his time at the club, Chinese newspapers were reduced to reporting on reserve matches. In August 2008, without a squad number and any hope of making it at the club, Dong's contract was cancelled and he returned to Dalian.
It wasn't a happy homecoming. Shorn of self-belief and showing little of the speed that Ferguson had talked of, Dong scored one goal in almost two seasons as he struggled to live up to the expectations in his homeland that came with being a former Manchester United player and he also lost his spot in the national team. In 2010, he returned to Europe for a second attempt but his spell at Legia Warsaw lasted four games and a move to Portuguese club Portimonense - the player was reportedly recommended by Cristiano Ronaldo - was no better.
Then it was FC Mika in Armenia in 2011 and then back to China in 2012, this time in the second division with Hunan. "I am back home," Dong said in March. "But my return to China doesn't mean that I am incapable of playing abroad." He's right. What he got wrong was joining a club that was out of his league. His career has yet to recover from his time spent at Old Trafford and the playing time he never had - though as he is still 27 and nothing if not feisty - he recently served a six-match suspension for making an obscene gesture at fans - there is still time.
For young players, encouraged by excitable local media that love nothing more than moves to big clubs, the lure of the English champions is hard to resist. If the likes of Adbulrahman, Yoon and Kinoshita really do get a chance to move to a club like Manchester City, they should think very seriously and then refuse. At a time in their careers when they need to be playing, there is little benefit, apart from the initial exposure, to be had from joining clubs that can, and do, buy almost any player they want.
Dong Fangzhuo will always be remembered by Manchester United fans as a player who just wasn't good enough to play for the club. Many others could say the same but, in Dong's case, he is still paying the price. His legacy in terms of Asian football could be more positive if it helps others to avoid the same fate.