Dong Fangzhuo became an Asian sensation when he joined Manchester United from Chinese side Dalian Shide in 2004. Jonathan Fadugba explores the striker's drastic decline from Europe's top stage

Just days after wrestling the title away from defending champions Chelsea, Manchester United travelled to Stamford Bridge for a League fixture on May 9, 2007. All the pre-match talk was of a guard of honour. Would José Mourinho be magnanimous enough in defeat to indulge the newly crowned Champions? He was – but Alex Ferguson sent out a reserve team. What followed was an almost farcical scene as John Terry and co lined up to salute the likes of Chris Eagles, Kieran Richardson and Kieran Lee.

Another name on United’s teamsheet that day was Dong Fangzhuo. Having signed a three-year contract for a fee rising to £3.5 million from Dalian Shide, the 22-year-old Chinese international striker was making his full debut. Fast forward nearly four years, however, and Dong’s swift fall from grace is quite startling.

Until recently Dong was on the books at modest Portimonense, located in the town of Portimão on the Algarve. A lower-division outfit for most of their 97-year existence, in 2010 they won promotion to the top division after a 20-year absence. Dong was signed ostensibly to add firepower to the survival fight. It didn’t work out. A solitary goal against minor opposition in the Portuguese cup did little to persuade anybody in Portimão of the worth of a player whom Ferguson once described as having “a big chance” of succeeding at United. After a handful of inconsequential substitute appearances, he was released.

It has been a recurring theme of Dong’s career ever since he emerged as the cream of a crop of youngsters sent by China’s top clubs to England for trials in August 2003. After leaving Old Trafford in 2008, the now 26-year-old player failed to impress at former club Dalian Shide back in China, then at Legia Warsaw before his stay with Portimonense. Told to find a new club in January, Dong had trials with Sloboda Point Sevojno in Serbia, but no transfer was completed.

Finally, in March he signed for Mika of the Armenian Premier League. It’s difficult to review Dong’s career to date without wondering just what Manchester United saw in him in the first place. Despite Ferguson praising the player’s “potential”, stating “he has the speed and physicality and his technique is improving all the time”, he only made two further appearances for United after his Stamford Bridge cameo. One came in an embarrassing 2-0 Carling Cup defeat to Coventry City in September 2007, the other in a Champions League dead-rubber group game in Rome.

The man once described by Hao Haidong – one of China’s greatest ever players – as “the nation’s most important striker for the next ten years” also fell out of favour at international level. Dong’s downward trajectory hit its nadir when he failed to make China’s squad for the recent Asian Cup in Qatar.

The player’s decline and that of his national team seem intertwined. When Dong completed his high-profile move to United in January 2004, it appeared to light the touch paper of a memorable year for Chinese football. Asian Cup hosts for the first time, China progressed to the final for only the second time, before losing 3-1 to Japan. They rose 37 places to 48th in the FIFA World rankings – their highest position since 1998 – and with a new emerging star it marked a period of Chinese optimism. Failure to qualify from their group at this year’s Asian Cup, however, and a slide back down the rankings, prompted the general secretary of the Chinese FA, Wei Di, to ask for FIFA’s help in improving the standard of the country’s football.

Some think Manchester United simply used Dong Fangzhuo as a pawn in a strategic attempt to tap into the lucrative Chinese market. But players of many different nationalities join big clubs in their formative years and struggle to make the grade, for all sorts of reasons. Similar accusations were thrown at Park Ji-Sung, yet he has since proved to be a shrewd signing.

It is curious, however, that Dong, alongside former Charlton player Zheng Zhi, was invited by Gordon Brown to 10 Downing Street in 2008, as part of a government intiative to improve relations with China. “I talked with Mr Brown for about five or ten minutes,” Dong commented at the time. “He asked me about my experience here... and football in China generally, and wished me good luck for the future.” There’s one high-profile figure who used Dong as a manipulative tool to curry favour with China. Whether another did too is up to individual interpretation.

From WSC 291 May 2011

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