In January 2004, Dong Fangzhuo signed for Manchester United from Chinese side, Dalian Shide. Aged just 18, Fangzhuo became the first east Asian player to join the ‘Red Devils’. Not only were the hopes of his new club resting on him, but also the eagerly awaiting gaze of China – a country still seeking its first footballing superstar.
Despite the attention that the £500,000 deal attracted, Fangzhuo’s footballing ability was still relatively unknown. That being said, he performed well at the 2004 AFC Youth Championship, as his goals helped China reach the final. That same year, Fangzhuo was shortlisted for the FIFPro Young Player of the Year. The nomination itself was testament to the forward’s potential, considering that Cristiano Ronaldo, Arjen Robben and Robinho were in the same shortlist.
Whilst the talents of Dong were important to Manchester United, the more lucrative part of the deal revolved around the increased revenue that deal would grant Manchester United in east Asia.
Manchester United’s former Chief-executive, David Gill announced that the deal would “open innumerable possibilities for the club in the Chinese market but the deal is sporting as much as commercial. Dong has outstanding quality.”
Unfortunately, Dong wasn’t able to showcase the ‘outstanding quality’ that convinced Gill to sign him. He made 3 first-team appearances for Manchester United, before hopping from club-to-club in Europe and Asia. But, wherever he went, Dong struggled to shake off the failure of his time in Manchester.
So how and why did it go wrong?
Before things became unstuck for Dong in Manchester, he enjoyed a successful loan spell at Royal Antwerp in Belgium. They were a feeder club for Manchester United, and they offered Dong a chance to experience European football before his work permit was granted, which would allow him to play in the Premier League.
Royal Antwerp’s former general secretary, Paul Bistaux heralded that Fangzhou was “a nice guy, with a good work ethic. But he couldn’t speak any English.”
In a 2004 interview with The Guardian, the forward stated (via an interpreter) the struggles he had with life so far away from home.
“I didn’t know anyone and I couldn’t speak Flemish, French or English. All I had was my own company and a hotel room.”
Despite the dissatisfaction in Fangzhuo’s life outside of football, he remained at Royal Antwerp for 2 more seasons.
Impressively, given the circumstances, he finished as the 2nd top scorer in the Proximus League in the 2005/06 season, with 18 goals in 28 games.
The following season, things were looking even better for Dong. 9 goals in 14 games for Royal Antwerp represented a healthy return. Consequently, he was called up to the Chinese national team for the first time – a move that finally granted him a work permit. Manchester United wasted no time in recalling him. After 27 goals in one and a half years of the Proximus League and now a Chinese international footballer, it seemed that Dong was finally going to make his mark in England.
But things didn’t materialise that way.
Andy Welsh, a Manchester United coach, who was sent to Antwerp to watch Dong, stated: “He really struggled with the culture and pressure of being at Manchester United.”
In the 2006/07 season, Dong made his competitive debut in the Premier League against Chelsea… although it didn’t come until May. By that time Manchester United already had the title wrapped up, and several stars were rested in preparation for the FA Cup final the following weekend.
Dong failed to have much impact, in a game that epitomized a ‘dead rubber’ – he was substituted with 20 minutes left.
The Chinaman played a prominent role on Manchester United’s pre-season tour of Asia before the 2007/08 campaign.
But the fact that Dong played only twice in competitive games that season, suggests that his role on the tour was largely based on marketing reasons, rather than footballing ones.
The forward’s case wasn’t helped by the fact that he didn’t showcase his potential when did get a chance on the pitch. Against Coventry in the League Cup, Manchester suffered a shock 2-0 defeat, with Dong failing to impress Alex Ferguson.
His third and final appearance for Manchester United, came in the last game of the Champions League group stage, when he came on for 20 minutes against Roma.
Darren Fletcher puts Dong’s failure at Manchester United down to him not, “seizing the moment.”
Andy Welsh knew more than most about Dong. He expected him to have more of an impact in England. Welsh points the problem not necessarily to him not taking his chance, but external factors outside of football, having a negative effect on the forward’s game. “I don’t think he was as comfortable in that environment as we thought and he hoped he would be.”
On the eve of the 2008/09 season Manchester United terminated Dong’s contract, two years before its expiration.
He returned to Dalian Shide, but he failed to shrug off the form that plagued him in England.
Former Chinese international and Manchester United trialist, Su Maozhen put it down to Dong’s arrogance. “After Manchester United, Dong thought everything was going to be easy and that when he returned to China, he would be the best.”
Dong certainly wasn’t the best, he didn’t score a goal in two years, before moving to Polish giants, Legia Warsaw.
But Maozhen’s cynical view fails to acknowledge the hardships of Dong’s footballing career leading up to him returning to China. He’d been uprooted out of China as a teenager, hailed as the future poster boy of Chinese football and discarded from the Manchester United reserves to Belgium and back to Manchester. No doubt, a tumultuous few years, that undoubtedly had an impact that marked Dong for the rest of his career.
Unfortunately, his potential was never realised. Despite venturing from club to club in Europe, he was never able to consistently score.
His best form came in the twilight of his career back in China, as he scored 9 goals in 43 games for Hunan Billows, but that was only in the Chinese League Two Division (the 3rd tier of Chinese football).
To make matters worse, Dong was the scene of public ridicule in his home country. He received a 6 match-ban, when he resulted to sticking his middle finger up at Beijing Institute of Technology supporters, after they had been lauding him with abuse.
5 years ago, Dong even went on a Chinese reality TV show to get a ‘skin peel treatment’ to rejuvenate his face. In England, the environment of mocking around Dong’s name ensued even after his career had long finished. The Sun went with the headline, “Man United’s Chinese starlet Dong Fangzhuo went from next big thing at Old Trafford alongside Ronaldo to reality TV facelift freak”.
There is now a stigma around the name of Dong Fangzhuo. His failure to live up to the lofty reputation that was on his shoulders in 2004, led to a life of ridicule during and after his footballing career. But, when assessing why he failed, it is important to acknowledge the difficulties that faced the, then 18 year-old Chinaman, embarking upon a new country, and aiming to break into one of the best teams in the world.
It’s clear that this deal was also largely incentivised by Manchester United’s marketing operation in Asia. A fact that cascades Dong as merely a pawn in the Red Devil’s game of global financial power.
For all of Dong’s footballing hiccups, he has more experience on what it does and doesn’t take to make it into European football. For that very reason, his recent appointment as a football coach for a school in Xiamen, China is perfect. He, himself picked up on this: “I hope I can share my successful and unsuccessful experiences in Europe with young players, so that they can understand football more…”
Whilst Dong didn’t become China’s footballing superstar, his career will provide invaluable experience to China’s next crop of footballer’s on the perils of taking on European football too soon.