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China Count on Fan in World Cup Finals
Although no one denies Fan Zhiyi is an extremely proficient defender, when he first made his landmark move to English football, the accompanying soundtrack was as much about cash registers ringing as supporters cheering.

The defender, who was named 2001 Asian Player of the Year last week, remains China's best-known star outside his homeland due to a successful three-year stint at Crystal Palace beginning in November 1998.

The London club was at the time as famed for the parlous fate of their finances as their football, and the potential fringe benefits of signing one of the most popular players in the world's most populous nation were obvious.

Despite having their matches shown to hundreds of millions of Chinese television viewers, the hoped-for merchandising windfall failed to prevent the club going into administration the next year.

However Fan, now 32, kept his part of the bargain. While fellow defender Sun Jihai, signed at the same time, soon returned to China, Fan became one of Crystal Palace's most valued players.

As one of the first two mainland Chinese to play professionally in England, Fan was also the object of sustained curiosity, with press reports detailing how he coped with such unwelcome novelties as British cuisine.

Fan, whose father played for Shanghai in the days before China's professional league and whose mother was an international athlete, is extremely quick, powerful, with good aerial ability and, crucially, vast amounts of experience.

He was a central figure in China's first-ever qualification for the World Cup finals, scoring four goals and marshalling both the defense and midfield as required.

If China is to make the best of a debut World Cup against first round opponents Costa Rica, Turkey and Brazil, they will need Fan to be at his best.

Since March he has been back at his home club Shanghai Shenhua, ending a five-month stint at Scottish Premiership side Dundee to fully prepare for the tournament.

Englishman Ted Buxton, who helped coach the Chinese national team for 14 months from 1997, describes Fan as "a lynchpin".

"He is very central to the team, with his enthusiasm and fight," said Buxton, who first recommended Fan and Sun to Crystal Palace.

Nonetheless, some argue that he has now been usurped in his status as the country's most important player.

"Fan is very important, but sometimes this is stressed too much because he is well known for playing in Europe," said Chinese football television pundit and writer Ma Dexing.

"He is less important to the team than Li Tie," Ma told AFP, referring to China's 25-year-old midfield dynamo.

If there is a suspect side to Fan's game, it is his temperament. He was handed a brief ban only two months after his arrival at Crystal Palace for "improper behavior" towards a referee, and sent off in his very first game for Dundee.

Additionally, within weeks of his return to China, he became embroiled in a scandal over an alleged "road rage" attack, and his loss of the national captaincy to Ma Mingyu was reportedly after personality clashes with teammates.

(China Daily May 21, 2002)

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