From Manchester United's latest sensation to a figure of ridicule on a reality show—whatever happened to Dong Fangzhuo?
Football is no stranger to tales of unfulfilled potential. Falling to pressure is a common fate, whether it be from peers, the players themselves or hard-to-please fans. But for Dong, the most intense pressure came from shouldering the burden of an entire football-obsessed nation on the other side of the world.
In 2004, introverted Chinese teenager Dong became the first East Asian player to sign for Manchester United. This was long before the newfound riches of the Chinese Super League had put the communist superpower on the footballing map.
Twelve years on—and still only 31—a player who was once held as China's great hope has disappeared into obscurity. The story of talent unfilled is not a new one, but it is how drastically Dong's career took a nosedive that makes this tale so striking.
Dong's rise was meteoric. There were already Chinese players plying their trade abroad—but never with this glare of attention. Sun Jihai—now inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame—had moved to United's neighbours Manchester City two years before Dong. This was different, however. This was the global superpower United.
"The size of Manchester United has a great deal to do with how Dong's story unfolded," Tom Byer, head of China's football development, told Bleacher Report.
"I worked with Shinji Kagawa from a very young age [in Japan], and I could see he was destined for Europe. I am not saying that [Borussia] Dortmund are a small club, but the jump from Dortmund to United was too much. The same happened with Hidetoshi Nakata at Roma—he never quite looked as good as he did at Perugia. Park Ji-sung is the only exception, I suppose."
Basketball and table tennis had long been dominant in China, but in the late 1990s, new TV deals gave Chinese viewers access to a new, exciting brand of English football. The Premier League was a compelling global product, and China fell in love with it quickly.
The most commercially active English clubs were aware of their exposure in Asia and the opportunity to win over millions of new fans. It was a natural extension to look for their own Asian superstar, and Dong was that man for United.
"He was purchased at sort of a high time for Chinese football, but he was far from an established player. He was only 18 and had just played a handful of league matches," Brandon Chemers, editor-in-chief of Wild East Football, told Bleacher Report. "There's the feeling that he was only signed to sell shirts."
That cynical view was commonplace in England at the time. The foreign influx from more established footballing nations in the '90s was still a new concept. The idea of a player coming from China was alien at that time.
A club of United's stature had their pick of Asian players. Dong had plenty of attributes that appealed to the physical nature of the Premier League, and he quickly stood out as a strong option.
"He went straight into the reserves and was tipped to do big things," former United under-18s coach Paul McGuinness told Bleacher Report. "He was a strong player—really strong. That is what struck us, that a player from Asia would have that level of strength.
"Not many people know this, but we had experience of Chinese players before, so we had an idea of what to look out for."
Fourteen years before Dong's arrival, there was Su Maozhen—a trialist who was identified by United legend Sir Bobby Charlton. Su's experience offers valuable insight into what Dong would have first encountered at United.
"I was with the Chinese under-16 national team, and we toured in the UK," Su told Bleacher Report. "Sir Bobby Charlton came to see us play. He had soccer schools in China back then. The project was organised by Margaret Thatcher and the Chinese government—it was important."
Su impressed in his trial, and Charlton picked him to train with United. In 1989, he returned for a three-month spell with United's under-16 squad but suffered a broken ankle that scuppered his chance to impress. United paid for the operation, however, and Su's story continued a couple of years later.
"I came back in 1991," Su says. "I lived in Salford, near the Cliff training ground. It was so exciting. Mark Hughes, Bryan Robson, David Beckham, you name it—we trained with them. I still remember my landlady, Brenda. Sir Alex Ferguson took me training with the first team, and he told me, 'One day, Su, you will be here.' He encouraged me a lot. I can only imagine they made the same effort with Dong. Why wouldn't they?"
Su acknowledges his lack of strength and speed cost him a shot in English football, but Dong was a different type of player altogether.
"Dong had that," he says. "Physically, Dong had power, speed and all that. Ferguson told me Dong was amazing—perfect for England. He called him 'explosive.'"
High praise indeed, but there was an early hurdle for Dong: getting a work permit. With no national-team appearances for China, Dong had no chance of getting clearance to play in England through traditional routes.
United had a contingency plan. Belgian club Royal Antwerp had established a feeder-club link-up with United, and not coincidentally, Belgium's relaxed laws allowed non-European youngsters the opportunity to play without the need for such paperwork.
"It wasn't the same as just sending players out on loan—we had guys there working for us," McGuinness says. "Warren Joyce and Andy Welsh were there for anything for the players. The fans there were fanatical, and that would have been a tremendous experience for any young lad.
"The Belgium league had a real mix of players from all over the world—great for someone like Dong, who felt like a real alien in Manchester."
Dong thrived at Antwerp. He started to show naysayers that his feet, not his marketing potential, were his true value.
"He was a great player. Very strong, quite tall, very fast, and when he shot at goal, it was like a bomb—so powerful," Regi Van Acker, one of Dong's former coaches at Antwerp, told Bleacher Report. "Defenders feared him.
"He did everything we asked of him in training and did extra personal training on his body. He seemed happy. Sir Alex Ferguson and [former United solicitor] Maurice Watkins visited Antwerp regularly. All was well."
All who speak of Dong's early career talk positively of this imposing physicality he possessed, but the language barrier remained a problem. It takes a certain type of personality to succeed as a player with the challenge of taking on a new language and a new culture rolled in. Dong seemed to be lacking in that department.
"The huge problem was how reserved he was," McGuinness says. "Su came in and interacted with all of us; we are still friends now. I don't think Dong tried, but as a young lad in a strange land, it must have been hard."
Su backs such claims: "The language was a problem, but I made a big effort to at least say little things. From what I hear, Dong didn't even try."
In Belgium, Dong scored goals and appeared happy in brief interactions with team-mates, but his unwillingness to integrate worked to his detriment.
"Once, he went away to play for the national team, and he came back with a shirt and other things from the national team as a present for me personally," Van Acker says. "But even then, it was just so difficult to communicate with him. Nobody knew what was going on inside his mind. It was difficult to help him. We just had European coaches."
In December 2006, Dong was finally granted his work permit to play in England. He had finished as the top goalscorer in the Belgian second division the previous season and scored for United in the 2006/07 pre-season.
Dong was 21 and still had a lot to prove, but he was moving in the right direction. A Premier League debut as a substitute against Chelsea at the end of the 2006/07 season finally brought Dong to United fans' attention. A full debut against Coventry in the League Cup at the start of the following campaign seemed to at least suggest he was in Ferguson's plans.
Dong scored the host country's first goal in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, but he wasn't given a United squad number at the beginning of the 2008/09 season. His cataclysmic decline to obscurity had begun, and a return to China with Dalian Shide followed in August 2008. There, Dong suffered a desperate famine in front of goal, as he didn't find the net once in two seasons. All appeared lost.
"His attitude was wrong," Su says. "After Manchester United, Dong thought everything was going to be easy and that when he returned to China, he would be the best.
"That is not true. You have to show your talent everywhere. The good players are always well-prepared in training and in normal life. I don't think he had people at home telling him how to live his life away from football."
The solution was to head back to Europe and try again, but the psychological damage seemed to have been done. A stint at Legia Warsaw in Poland lasted just four appearances, and Dong terminated his own contract at Portuguese club Portimonense—a move that had been aided by a recommendation from Cristiano Ronaldo, no less.
A final stint in Armenia failed to reignite his flailing career, leaving no other option than to head home once more. That's when things really took a turn for the worse. Everyone in China seemed to have given up on him.
Having enjoyed some form of riches from his European adventure, and with his dream of making it up in flames, Dong became somewhat of a rebel in a country that doesn't take kindly to such behaviour.
"His commitment was regularly questioned in the media, as he showed little interest in aiming higher," Christopher Atkins, a player representative in China, told Bleacher Report. "He also got himself in to trouble that season, earning a six-match ban for giving Beijing Institute of Technology supporters the middle finger after suffering abuse when withdrawn early from a league match following a yellow card."
The anti-establishment conduct continued, and Dong became something of a target for the ire of the media.
"There were all sorts of rumours that he had been tempted by nightlife and all that sort of thing," Byer says. "One thing he did that didn't go down well was he dyed his hair bleach-blond—a real no-no in Asian life, especially in the public eye."
Dong had problems with his weight, and retirement inevitably followed—before he'd turned 30. The downward spiral continued. An already-easy target for ridicule, an unhealthy-looking Dong recently appeared on a reality TV show on which contestants were subject to plastic surgery procedures.
How do we explain such a sharp decline? A myriad youngsters have been turned away by United and still made a name for themselves. Su went on to accumulate 53 international caps and coach in the Chinese second tier.
Was it the responsibility of serving as Chinese football's great global ambassador—being a player described by Chinese legend Hao Haidong as "the nation's most important striker for the next 10 years," according to When Saturday Comes—that did it for Dong?
"There was so much pressure on the kid. Chinese football needed a boost," Byer says. "The Chinese Super League was launched around the same time Dong left for England, and that was supposed to be the start of something great. How does a kid like him handle so much?"
Aside from his recent, desperate attempt to remain a public figure, Dong has disappeared. His story as a footballer of undoubted ability is resigned to what might have been—both for Dong and the impact he could have had at United and on Chinese football as a whole.
"A sad story, really, of a talented player," Atkins says. "[Dong's former team-mate] Ransford Addo once told me he was the best United kid they ever took at Antwerp."
Dong could have been something special at United. He could have been China's trailblazing superstar—a footballer to signpost a nation's bold new future. His dramatic rise promised everything, but the story of Dong Fangzhuo is one of swift decline and crushing anticlimax.
At the start, he was different. But by the end of his career, Dong was just like all the others who fail to make the grade.
All quotes gathered firsthand unless otherwise stated. Bleacher Report tried unsuccessfully to contact Dong Fangzhuo. It was also not possible to confirm where Dong is located.