Football: Promise of a Fan from the East

Crystal Palace and the China syndrome - it could be a marketing coup. By Andrew Longmore
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The Independent Online
TWO years ago, Fan Zhiyi sat in a cramped tenement block on a backstreet in Peking, the training centre of the Chinese national side, and articulated his dream of coming to play football in England. At the time, he was set to make history by leading China into its first match against England. As one of the first superstars of the newly professionalised Chinese league, Fan had an apartment, drove a Honda and earned a healthy pounds 1,500 a month playing for his home town of Shanghai. His one appearance at the gates of the centre caused a flurry among the children on the street. He signed autographs in English to quicken the process. Practising, no doubt, for another day.

Whether Crystal Palace was quite the dream home he had in mind is another matter. But on a bright morning at the club's new training ground on Friday, Fan had a televised message for the folks back home, all one billion of them. "Hello, I am Fan Zhiyi," he said to the camera. "I have come to play football in England with Crystal Palace. Thank you for your support and please watch Peking television this Sunday and see me play."

The appeal should guarantee the highest television audience ever for an English league match and, if all the marketing plans are accurate, ensure sales of replica Crystal Palace kits which will make Manchester United's merchandising look like a cottage industry.

Next week, a delegation of Crystal Palace executives - the sponsorship director, the new sales director and the director of merchandising - will fly to China to capitalise on the arrival in England of the first two overseas professional footballers from the People's Republic. The aim is to flood the market with Palace blue-and-red, set up a membership scheme and sound out the demand for the pay-per-view which Mark Goldberg, the new owner of the club, feels will be available in three years.

Within five years, Goldberg envisages a worldwide club membership of 100,000, each receiving radio commentaries of all Palace's games initially, followed by the option of pay-per-view plus interviews and Internet packages. "At pounds 10 a month, that's a potential annual revenue of pounds 12m," says Goldberg, who has done the maths before.

Much rides on a stylish performance by Palace today and an eye-catching contribution from their latest recruit. In the probable absence of Sun Jihai, the youngest ever Chinese international, who is still recovering from a hamstring injury, Fan Zhiyi has 90 minutes in which to captivate the notoriously fickle public of China.

If this week is any guidance, his star is in the ascendant. On Wednesday night, in a near deserted Selhurst Park, Fan drove home a spectacular winner against Bury, not enough to win the Worthington Cup tie, but worthy of the extravagant kisses he blew the sparse crowd. The following morning he was present at the birth of Fan Si Jing, a 9lb baby girl and his first child. He had missed training on Friday to take his wife some chicken soup in hospital and was so dazed by interview time, he had referred to "us two", himself and his wife, before being reminded that the family had now been increased by one.

"My wife used to be an air stewardess for Air China," Fan explained between sips of celebration champagne. "So she is used to travelling. It's been easy for her to settle down here. Coming to England is not a problem because it is such an easy society. It would be much harder for an Englishman to go to China. There's no been no cultural shock." He has not suffered Selhurst Park on a freezing Tuesday night yet.

The initial contacts for Fan's move to England were made during England's notorious pre-European Championship tour to the Far East. The trip ended with a wrecked upper deck of a Cathay Pacific jumbo jet and the seeds of a deal sown in the mind of the England coach, Terry Venables. As he returned to club management, the transfer - pounds 500,000 for Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai - was completed. "I knew about Palace before I came," Fan said. "We have regular coverage of the Premiership on Chinese television and Palace used to be a Premiership team. But I came because of Mr Venables. He's a great coach and like a father to me." But that does not fully explain why a little corner of south London should become Chinatown. "The Chinese people like the name 'Crystal Palace' because it sounds very old and grand, like Buckingham Palace," says Dong Jian Li, a journalist with the BBC world service. "It's an easy name for people to remember."

Points now rather than prosperity tomorrow being the prime concern of the Palace faithful, there is still a degree of scepticism about the true worth of Fan and Sun to the already dwindling cause of promotion. The pair's debut coincided with a 3-0 drubbing at Bury, though Sun showed pace and promise before hobbling off. Defeats by Port Vale and Barnsley further complicated the introductions before Fan's late right-foot strike against Bury wrung some grudging respect from the terracing. "The pace and the physical side of the game, those are hard," Fan said. "Attack and counter-attack is so quick. What I like is the freedom of the training. It's not as regimented as it is back home. The coach encourages you more."

"It'll take time for them to settle down," Venables said. "But Fan is such a versatile player, he'll adapt and people will come to see what a good player he is." Back home, Fan played centre-forward for his club Shanghai, his 15 goals in 1996 bringing his home club the league title; for China, he plays centre-half.

At 21, eight years Fan's junior, Sun Jihai is the player most likely to cross the divide. The son of a national athletics coach, he was a 400 metres runner before his undoubted talent for football - and his upbringing in Liaoning, China's equivalent of Geordieland - persuaded his father to sanction the change of sport. "If you don't love football, you're not a man" is an advertising slogan predominant in China at present. Jihai is billed as the most talented player to emerge from the expanding development programme in China, but his face is still that of a boy. "I wish I could grow up and be more independent," Sun said. His parents arrived last week to ease the transition, but Sun will not be the first to discover that the Nationwide First Division is a tough finishing school. Whole racks full of Crystal Palace shirts depend on the successful graduation of the exotic new students.