Double Signing From China Worked But Did Not Signal Expected Influx
The signing of Chinese international defenders Sun Jihai and Fan Zhiyi caused a bit of a stir back in 1998 when Palace unveiled the new additions but the expected influx of players from China failed to materialised.
It looked like many would follow from a country with the largest population of any in the world, but it just did not happen.
Zhiyi and Jihai made the headlines when they left Shanghai to join the then First Division Palace to become the first Chinese footballers to play in England. Fan, who became a real favourite in South London and went on to make over a hundred appearances for the club, left Palace in 2001 for Dundee before returning to China in 2002. Sun struggled to retain a first team place and only made twenty-five appearances before moving to Manchester City in 2002 where he was more successful.
It was not until 2002 that English football saw other players from China follow the lead of Zhiyi and Jihai with the signings of Li Tie and Li Weifeng arriving at Goodison Park. The new additions to the Everton squad were a lot to do with Chinese Telecommunications company Kejian who were club sponsors at the time.
In 2004 Dong Fanzhou left Dalian Shide to join Manchester United but only made one appearance for the Old Trafford club. He had a successful lengthy loan spell at Royal Antwerp but eventually returned to Dalian in 2008. Meanwhile, Zheng Zhi tried his luck in English football after initially joining Charlton Athletic on loan in 2007. After what was a successful spell in South London, Zhi moved to Celtic in 2009 before returning to China with Guangzhou in 2010.
Young Chinese striker Zhang Yuning is the only member of the China national squad playing in Europe after signing for West Bromwich Albion last summer after impressing at Vitesse in the Netherlands. He was immediately loaned out to Werder Bremen with Zhiyi actively encouraging more players from his homeland to test themselves in European leagues. The former China captain was seen as a trailblazer when he became the first Chinese player to play professionally in England.
Perhaps the talent pool was too sparse and with the success of the Premier League word-wide, there was arguably less chance of such players breaking into what was and still is deemed to be one of the most competitive leagues around. It is increasingly unlikely that we will see Chinese players come to play in this country in the future now that the rebranded sixteen team Chinese Super League is causing a stir.
However, in saying that, with the money that is being thrown at their domestic league better overseas players have been attracted to play in the domestic league in China. That will only be good for Chinese players, being exposed to better opposition week in week out as well as team-mates on the training pitch.
Why the influx never happened is difficult to pin point and maybe it will come at some point as the domestic league has been given a real boost. Perhaps there is an argument for the change in culture being difficult to come to terms with along with being such a distance from home. It often does not matter whether someone is being paid a huge amount of money to come here, that cannot change such feelings.
Regardless, there will no doubt be plenty of Palace fans that will still be pleased that the club decided to bring both Fan and Sun to South London.
What happened to Fan and Sun after Palace?
After leaving Palace, Fan made a handful of appearances for Dundee before returning to China to play for Shanghai International. He had a brief stint at Cardiff City in 2002 before moving on to Buler Rangers and Shanghai Zobon. He had assistant manager and director of football stints at both those clubs as well as at Zuhou Trips and Shanghai East Asia. He is currently reserve team boss at Shanghai Shenhua. He retired from playing in 2005 and made over a hundred international appearances.
Sun left Manchester City in 2002 for Sheffield United in 2008 before returning to China to play for Chengdu Blades, Guizhou Renhe, Chongqing Lifan and Beijing Renhe. He made a little under a hundred international appearances for China and retired from football in 2016.