Whatever happened to Manchester United's Dong?

Manchester United have had an interest in dabbling in the East Asian market in an attempt to capilitise on their popularity throughout the region. They have had success with that approach especially with South Korean Park Ji-Sung and to a lesser extent Shinji Kagawa who in my opinion was shockingly used by Fergie. The first East Asian market that Premier league clubs tried to break though was China.

With that in mind, the first East Asian player to arrive at Old Trafford in 2004 was Chinese international Dong Fangzhou. The intention behind the signing of an up-and-coming Chinese international player was clear at the time, to crack the Chinese market and benefit from all the financial rewards that comes from having a player who would have the support of a nation with a population of over 1 billion.

To get Dong to Manchester they paid Dailan Shide £500,000 with the fee potentially raising to £3.5 million. This figure was a huge sum of money for a Chinese international at the time especially if the fee did rise to £3.5 million but in hindsight that was never close to happening.

As getting a UK work permit was and likely still is a practical impossibility for Chinese players Manchester United sent him to their feeder club of the time – Belgian side Antwerp. Antwerp at the time were a second division side which would give Dong a platform to get used to living and playing in Europe, while also offering the potential of gaining Belgian citizenship if all went as planned.

During his first two seasons playing for Antwerp he struggled to adjust, but by the time the third season rolled around Dong had settled in Belgium and even ended the season as Antwerp’s and the Belgian league’s top goal scorer. This led to Dong gaining call ups to the Chinese national side on a regularly and he also participated at the 2007 Asian Cup which eventually led to him attaining a work permit.

What should have happened at this point was that Dong should of gained Belgian citizenship as that was obviously the idea from the start. By sending him to Antwerp he could of became a European passport holder initiating a series of events whereby if things didn’t work out in Manchester it would have been easier for him to carry on his career in Europe.

Well things didn’t exactly go according to plan, Manchester United overlooked a couple of important points. The first – The Chinese government don’t allow their citizens to hold dual nationality, and the second – which is closely tied to the first; is that they overlooked how patriotic Chinese nationals are. Dong proved this by refusing to give up his Chinese nationality to gain Belgian citizenship.

This could be the single moment to pinpoint in Dong’s footballing career where things went south.  Until this point things had been seemingly going well. He had been one of China’s brightest prospects while he had also performed well in Belgium.

He signed in 2004, and on May 9th 2007 he made his Manchester United debut at Old Trafford partnering club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The game itself was entirely meaningless as the title had already been won by Alex Ferguson’s side which would explain his inclusion in the team. Fast forward to 2018 and the thought of Wayne Rooney coming off the bench to replace Dong Fangzhou is a crazy thought but that is what happened. His debut was ended with China’s great hope being subbed off for what was then England’s great hope.

He managed to play a couple more times for Manchester United – an embarrassing defeat to a Michael Mifsud inspired Coventry City in the League Cup where they lost 2-0 and a Champions League game against Roma. That was the sum total of his career in Manchester, after not being selected for the squad in the 2008 season he agreed to terminate his contract with the club to head off in search of regular first team football.  

Failing to get another contract in Europe, he returned to the club where it all started out so promisingly, Dailan Shide. There were big expectations of him due to playing at the top club in England, but he struggled badly and failed to score often. After China he decided he would try and give playing in Europe another try. This was the start of his journeyman career which would lead to a bizarre ending.

He managed to succeed in being offered a contract with Legia Warsaw of Poland after a trial. He started well in Poland, and looked promising in the pre-season friendlies but faded badly, and the initial 18 month contract was all he managed, not doing enough for Legia to keep him. After this he had brief stint in Portugal with Portmonense (after contacting his mate Christiano Ronaldo asking about clubs to play for).

When things didn’t work out in Portugal he then showed up in Serbia with FK Sloboda Point Sevojno wanting to sign him. This didn’t happen as it was reported that Dong wanted to be paid 10,000 Euros a week and only wanted a short term deal. Most likely he was still trying to get deals based on being a Manchester United player in the past.

After the Serbian deal fell through, he ended up in the Armenian Premier League turning out for a side named Mika in 2011. After his only season playing in Armenia he returned back to China with Hunan Billows but again only managed a short spell, before moving again to Hebei Zhongji where he only managed 7 games.

After leaving Manchester United every club he played for he seemed to insist on only getting a short term deal pointing to the fact that he might have just wanted to make some ‘quick’ money instead of taking a smaller contract and managing to have a decent European football career.

After retiring from football however, he turned up on a TV show in China to get plastic surgery. His reason for the plastic surgery was because he gets abuse every day for being an absolute flop of a footballer in Europe. A truly bizarre ending to one of the least celebrated signings of Ferguson's career. We can only presume he was signed by Ferguson and Manchester united from a purely marketing perspective.

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