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Manchester Dreaming
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Chinese soccer desperately needs a star, and English Premier League giants Manchester United believe they have found one.

With a new 3-year contract at the biggest club in the world and a place in the first-team squad, the stage should be set for 21-year-old striker Dong Fangzhuo to make himself a national hero, adored by China's hundreds of millions of soccer fans.

But nothing is that simple.
 
His new contract comes at a time when Manchester United is looking to milk the commercial potential of Asia's legion of fans, adding fuel to the theory that Dong is marketing ploy first, soccer player second.

And, after two and a half seasons playing in the second tier of Belgian soccer, questions remain over whether he has the ability to ever fit in alongside stellar teammates such as Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Eyebrows were raised in January 2004 when Manchester United bought the then unknown teenager from Chinese Super League side Dalian Shide for a fee that could rise to $7 million. As one British newspaper noted, United "have no qualms in splashing out such a fee for the player as they know they will swiftly make their money back because of their huge popularity in the Far East."

Dong was seen as a commercial signing, and when it emerged that he would have to spend at least two years on loan at Manchester United's Belgian farm team Royal Antwerp while he qualified for a British work permit, he became something of a joke, a business plan that had backfired badly.

However the club was not ready to write him off just yet, especially as he had started finding the back of the net. He ended his career at the Belgian club with an impressive 35 goals in 61 appearances, albeit most of them after the club had been relegated to the second tier, and he has now made seven appearances for China, scoring one goal.

"We're all excited he has eventually arrived and can start playing," United manager Alex Ferguson was quoted as saying on the club's website when the contract was inked two weeks ago.

"He sacrificed two and a half years at Royal Antwerp, which showed great patience and determination. He is quick and athletic and he can only improve by training with the first team squad here."

Terrific pace

Club officials at Royal Antwerp are equally positive about his ability. "His pace is terrific, it is one of his main assets," General secretary Paul Bistiaux told China Daily. "His technique is good, but has still room for improvement.

"I am convinced that he will play even better in a team where he is surrounded by top players."

Nevertheless, there are commercial factors behind the signing. Since the early 1990s Manchester United has established itself as a global brand, with credit cards, club shops and soccer schools around the world, and they are not about to ignore China.

Last week the club announced record profits of more than $60 million on turnover of $324 million. The bulk of this was put down to a lucrative new shirt sponsorship deal and an expanded stadium capacity of 76,000, which means $4 million in ticket sales alone for each home match.

At the same time Dong was being granted a work permit, the club hired their first full-time marketing manager for Asia, Rob James. "On the playing side it is absolutely down to his ability," he told China Daily. "His ability got him where he is."

"Obviously, it is great that he is Chinese," he added. "But that has nothing to do with it."

Hunting partners

James revealed the club is planning an Asian tour this summer, with one date already confirmed in Malaysia. The Asian tour will likely include China, where the young striker first appeared in the famous red shirt in 2005.

Although James would not confirm the tour details, the club plans to launch Manchester United credit cards in China. "We will if we can work with the right partner. It is about finding the right relationship," he said.

The credit cards have been a hit in South Korea, spurred on by the appeal of midfielder Park Ji-sung, who joined the club in 2005. "At the latest count, we have 610,000."

Premier League rivals Chelsea have recently teamed up with Sina.com to launch a Chinese language website, and James said Manchester United, whose website is currently in English and Thai, are hoping to do the same this year.

"We do have plans for different languages, we're looking for partners. We hope to have it up and running this year."

Also on the agenda is expansion of the club's Manchester United Soccer Schools, where children can experience top-level coaching from the club's staff. "We are looking to grow these," said James. "We've had success in Dubai, Hong Kong and Canada. We are looking to open in the region, looking at all locationsit's very much on the board."

Asian soccer business experts believe Dong's playing and commercial potential are inextricably linked.

"With Manchester United's upfront interest in expanding its brand and commercial ventures into Asia, particularly China, Dong's commercial value to the club would have been assessed and valued as an important factor," says Geoffrey Gold, editor of Asian Football Business Review.

"However, unless a player is acquired at an absurdly cheap price, it is illogical to assume that football potential is not of equal if not more importance to a club requiring football honors to maintain its global status.

"Dong getting a regular game may substantially increase the television viewing audience for Manchester United games in China. If consistent, the larger numbers will increase the club's attractiveness for sponsorship and co-branded commercial ventures. AIG confirmed that it paid a record sponsorship for Manchester United because it could take its insurance brand into China. Tourism Malaysia and Air Asia ditto," he said.

"Brand development is a long-term venture, so as Chinese disposable incomes increase, and piracy in China decreases, Manchester United can expect expediential growth in a wide variety of products."

(China Daily January 31, 2007)

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