Will Unwin brings us the first in a series about the first intrepid foreign footballers. We begin with China…
When Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai arrived at Crystal Palace in the summer of 1998, nobody in south-east London knew what they would get from the Chinese duo and neither player could have anticipated how things would pan out in England.
Palace boss Terry Venables had spotted Fan when he took his England team to China in 1996 ahead of the Euros. The trip will largely be remembered for the dentist’s chair but some good did emerge, with the former Barcelona manager bringing Fan and his compatriot Sun over to England two years later.
Venables had confidence in the duo, aided by the recommendation of Palace’s Ted Buxton, who had worked in China, but there’s no doubt there was a marketing element to the deal as the club looked to take its limited brand to China, knowing the nation would want to see their star men take on the English at their own game.
They would join an eclectic squad including Attilio Lombardo and Sasa Curcic, so Fan’s experience of watching English football on TV in his younger days did not fully represent his reality. Integration into a dressing room trying to modernise was a huge challenge for players used to the military precision of the Chinese football league, where footballers had to run 3,200 metres in 12 minutes to be eligible, so running alongside a puffing Neil Shipperley would seem a simple task for the duo.
After being permitted a short spell of settling in at Selhurst Park, the pair were given their debuts in a League Cup game against Bury, which resulted in Sun being injured after just 18 minutes and a 3-0 loss for Palace. Welcome to England, lads. Things looked up for Fan as he scored his first for the club in the return leg and he would soon cement himself as a key player in the league.
For Sun things did not immediately improve but he quickly moved on from his trial of English food and instead had his mum come to London where she could make all his favourites.
Fan was China’s captain at the time, so when the TV rights were secured for the huge First Division clash with Sheffield United, it was no surprise 100 million people tuned in to see how the nation’s hero was getting on in his new home. It would open doors for Li Tie and Zheng Zhi to come to England in years to come.
One hurdle was language so Fan could fully understand the absolutely top-class banter flying around the dressing room and training ground. In a Guardian interview at the time, Fan was asked about his English and he said: “My English is developing. Some of my teammates pretend they can speak Chinese to me.” Luckily for all involved Fan seemed to take this jesting in good humour, but one can only cringe at what the China captain had to witness from his fellow professionals. But it’s just banter, isn’t it?
Undeterred by an average season at Selhurst Park, which saw the the team finish 14th in the First Division, Fan had become a regular in the team as he naturally adapted to life in England thanks to intelligence and supreme fitness, not to mention his ability to play in defence or midfield. By now Venables had left and Steve Coppell was his replacement; Sun also exited Palace as he was only on loan and Dalian Shide wanted him back as he was actually quite good at football.
Fan stayed for another season of mid-table mediocrity and was then partnered at the back of the 2000/01 campaign with Neil Ruddock as two worlds collided. Eventually Fan was seen as the superior defender and Ruddock was allowed to leave in February, a sign of how things were moving on in English football, the old school replaced by a foreign influx who were willing to be more professional than their predecessors.
Eventually Dundee paid to take Fan to Scotland after three years of becoming a cult hero at Palace. Fan’s relationship with owner Simon Jordan had soured as he turned down a new deal in the hope of moving to the Premier League and missed a number of Palace games due to international duty. Despite this he picked up the Player of the Year award in his final season, showing his influence in the team. After rumoured interest from old boss Venables, who was now at Middlesbrough, went nowhere, he had to accept his best route out was to Den’s Park. He would not return to England, but can boast of six appearances for Cardiff a year later.
Sun on the other hand was brought back to England by Kevin Keegan at Manchester City, where he would spend six years being the most committed professional in the country. His efforts took him into the Premier League and Europe. He was a solid player who was forced to play all over the pitch for City, but due to some political wranglings and what not, he has somehow ended up in English football’s Hall of Fame alongside Gary Lineker and George Best.
He may not have deserved it and it was a token gesture to appease China, but if Sun has his fictional award then Fan certainly deserves to be there too, as they both broke down barriers with their arrival in England.
Will Unwin (follow him on Twitter)