Fan Zhiyi was the first Chinese player to grace Scottish football, signing for Dundee in October 2001. He is the only Chinese player to represent a team outside the Old Firm in Scottish footballing history. Fan brought Chinese football to Dens Park, and with him came a whole new fanbase.
Dundee signed Fan from Crystal Palace. It’s the weirdest bit of transfer business conducted by former Dee boss Ivano Bonetti, and he brought Claudio Cannigia to Tayside.
The sometimes captain of his national side, Fan chose Dens Park to warm-up for his country’s first ever World Cup.
To sum up the somewhat double life Fan led whilst at Dens Park, it would probably be this. One week he trained in the cold and wet of Tayside, the next week he was shooting an Adidas advert with Zinedine Zidane and Raul.
Having played numerous positions throughout his career, from goalscoring striker to centre-half, Fan was a reliable player just about anywhere on the park. This caught the eye of Crystal Palace, and in 1998, Fan and Palace made national headlines.
Fan, along with Sun Jihai, became the first Chinese players to play in the English league. With hundreds of millions of Chinese residents watching the English league on a weekly basis at the time, this automatically made him an Asian superstar.
He went on to captain Palace on some occasions, becoming a cult hero at Selhurst Park. He was more famous in his homeland than David Beckham, and after guiding his national side to their first ever World Cup, he needed somewhere to prepare for the competition.
Palace wanted to let him go, and so began Fan’s five months at Dens Park. Cars would pass by Dundee’s old training ground at Caird Park, unaware Asia’s most famous footballer was just over the other side of a bush.
A marketing coup
Whilst a sending off against Dundee United on his debut wasn’t the perfect start, Fan certainly made an impression in Dundee, on and off the park.
Often a solid option at both ends of the park, three goals in 18 games was a decent contribution. Not only that, but Dundee had a cult following in China, wanting to follow his progress in Dark Blue.
Dundee and Abertay university received hundreds of Chinese applications due to Fan’s arrival in Tayside. The Dundee website had had more than 300,000 hits in the week following the Chinese icon’s arrival, and his unveiling in Dark Blue was streamed on national Chinese television.
In March 2002 though, the Chinese government stepped in. They needed their star man back for the 2002 World Cup, and requested that Dundee let him go to prepare in his homeland, which Dundee accepted. He was meant to return in the summer, but this was to be the last time Fan set foot in Tayside.
Dundee are a well known side in China because of Fan. He really did put the Dark Blues on the map in the Far East. The iconic Chinese sportsman has his own unique place in Scottish footballing history.