Chinese fans were going Dundee mad after the signing of Fan Zhiyi from Crystal Palace for £350,000 in October 2001.
Fan first made his mark when an England side led by Terry Venables travelled to Beijing in May 1996 for a friendly against China ahead of the Euros.
Fan and his compatriot Sun were brought to England two years later when Venables became Palace manager for a second spell.
Fan was China’s captain and 100 million people tuned in back home when Palace sold the TV rights for a league match against Sheffield United.
It would arguably prove a turning point in the popularity of English football in China and Fan adapted to life in London and became a first-team regular.
Fan became a cult hero at Palace and was part of the side that defeated Liverpool 2-1 in the first leg of the League Cup semi-final in January 2001.
Liverpool and Newcastle made him offers to move to the Premier League but wanted to limit his time with the national side, which he turned down.
Fan instead signed for Dundee after scoring the free-kick that sealed China’s 2-0 victory over Uzbekistan, which secured a place in the World Cup finals.
Adidas celebrated the qualification by creating a tailor-made advert for the Chinese market featuring Fan alongside Zinedine Zidane and Raul.
Dundee expected to make a fortune in spin-offs from the three-year deal.
It was believed the windfall would outweigh that surrounding the arrival of Claudio Caniggia in October 2020, which brought an international TV audience that stretched from South America to the West Indies.
Dundee held talks about opening a Dundee FC shop in Shanghai while the club’s website included a Chinese language section.
Fan was more famous in his homeland than David Beckham and the Dundee website received more than 300,000 hits on the day he signed for the club.
Dundee were struggling to adjust to life without Caniggia and things had taken a turn for the worse after being knocked out of the League Cup by Ross County.
Manager Ivano Bonetti was under pressure and Fan was joined by Temuri Ketsbaia, who was brought in on big wages from Wolves to stem the tide.
Ketsbaia made an immediate impact and back-to-back victories over Hibs and Motherwell provided some much-needed forward momentum.
Government red tape prevented Fan flying to Scotland until November, when his unveiling at Dens Park was streamed live on Chinese television.
“We must want to be in the top three so we can then play in Europe,” he said.
“This is a new challenge and there is much to learn, but I am looking forward to it.”
Fan declared himself ready to make his debut in a city derby against United at Dens but was left distraught after being sent off in the second half of the 1-1 draw.
He picked up a booking on half-time for a challenge on Jim Hamilton and that caution proved costly when he was shown a second yellow for diving on 63 minutes.
“The referee has implied that I am a liar and a cheat but I hurt my ankle in the incident and certainly did not try to play for the foul,” he complained.
“I’ve only ever been sent off once in my life and I’m extremely upset at what happened.
“Obviously, I wanted to create a good impression in my first game for Dundee.
“So you can image I’m really upset.”
Fan flew to China after the derby to lead his home city, Shanghai, in the Ninth National Games, where he once again fell foul of the football authorities.
He was hit with a two-match ban by the tournament’s organising committee for his part in a flare-up during the quarter-final win over Yunnan.
Chief executive Peter Marr and club co-ordinator Dario Magri were also in Shanghai where discussions over the club taking an end-of-season trip to the Far East involved the possibility of participating in a quadrangular World Cup warm-up competition featuring Dundee, China and two other national sides.
Fan returned to Dens Park to inspire Dundee to a draw against Rangers and shackled Caniggia, who was now leading the line for the Ibrox side.
The 31-year-old defender proved himself to be a solid option for the Premier League side and scored several important goals during his 18 games.
There was a goal against Celtic at Parkhead, which was followed by match-winning performances to deliver league and cup victories over Hibs and Falkirk.
Chinese supporters were desperate to see Fan, including one over-exuberant man who had to be relieved of his ceremonial sword before a match against St Johnstone.
He arrived at the ground on a bus but, as he was about to disembark, the driver noticed he was carrying the ornamental weapon and advised that he might encounter a spot of difficulty with police and security staff if he tried to take it into the stadium.
The Fan-factor produced even more tangible benefits for the city’s universities with figures showing a surge in applications for courses from Chinese students.
With the World Cup approaching, hopefully this will mark the start of a few great weeks for Fan.”
Fan’s brief Dundee career was ended with a loan move to Cosco Huili that saw him return to his homeland for the last quarter of the season.
A co-operation agreement was also signed between the clubs following the move, which would also involve Chinese players and coaches visiting Tayside.
Fan Zhiyi was named Asia’s 2001 player of the year and Dundee commercial director Jim Connor attended the ceremony in May 2002.
“This is great for Fan and as the award covers the period when he arrived at Dundee, we see it as valuable recognition for Dundee,” he said.
“With the World Cup approaching, hopefully this will mark the start of a few great weeks for Fan.”
Connor was in Shanghai, at Asia’s biggest football exhibition, where he was promoting the club’s new Chinese website, which attracted 20,000 subscribers.
He said he was followed around by fans chanting “Dundee, Dundee, Dundee” and sold 600 replica shirts and other merchandise.
“As a club, we have looked at a lot of football set-ups over the past few seasons,” he said.
“We’ve been to Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Serbia, Germany and, of course, Italy, but nothing compares to what I saw in China.
“We’re also running a competition with Virgin Atlantic, offering four pairs of tickets for Chinese people to come to Dens to watch one of our games as VIP guests.
“In four days of the exhibition we got 40,000 entries.
“Officials over there have told me that, because of Fan, only Manchester United are better known than us and that has helped us reach agreement of a number of projects.”
The Fan Zhiyi plan never quite worked on or off the pitch.
Following China’s dismal World Cup showing amid match-throwing claims, he found himself at loggerheads with sections of the media.
The golden boy of China’s golden era was now public enemy number one.
He returned to Dens Park in August but refused to re-sign for the Dark Blues.
Fan signed for Cardiff City in November 2002, where he spent a year before returning to the Far East to wind down his playing career in Hong Kong and China.
He still has fond memories of his time with Palace and Dundee.
“Every time I have the opportunity to go back to London or the UK, I feel like it’s returning home,” he said.
“My dream in the future, when I really want to retire, is to return to London and buy a house in the countryside.
“Life there would be really happy.”
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