Throughout the summer we are looking back on how former Palace players have fared on the international stage. Today, we turn our attention to China, and reflect on their only World Cup appearance in 2002 with Fan Zhiyi.
For a country boasting an unmatched population of 1.4 billion, it is remarkable to think that only 19 players have ever played for China at a World Cup finals, but for Fan Zhiyi qualifying for the 2002 edition was the pinnacle of his career.
Fan had already been a trailblazer at club level after he and compatriot Sun Jihai sprang to the attention of Terry Venables during China’s friendly against England ahead of Euro 96, and two years later he recruited the pair during the start of his second spell as Palace manager, with an estimated 100 million fans in Asia watching the pair’s early English exploits.
While Sun only remained at the club during the 1998/99 campaign, Fan stuck around for much longer and would become a fan favourite in south London, making 102 appearances and scoring six goals as well as being voted the Eagles’ Player of the Year in 2001.
However, his commitment to his country’s cause was never in question, regularly undertaking long-haul flights in a quest to help China finally reach their footballing potential. During 2001, that moment finally arrived when after nine years of service, he achieved his dream when a solitary goal from Yu Ganwei claimed a 1-0 win over Oman; their fifth victory from six qualifiers ensuring they made the short trip to Japan and South Korea the following summer.
"It was a success that went beyond football itself," recalled Fan, speaking to FIFA.com in 2011. "When the game was over and we qualified for World Cup for the first time, I got so excited that I even couldn't hear the wild celebrations around me.
"For the nation, it was mission accomplished after 44 years of hard work and for me, it was a dream come true having failed in the previous two attempts."
Emotion came pouring out of the captain, known affectionately by his supporters as 'General Fan' who applauded him off the field that night draped in his nation’s flag. When he reached the dressing room, he admitted to weeping with joy: "It was because by that time, we had waited too long and gone through too much hardship."
Having starred for club and country, Fan was rewarded by being named AFC Asian Player of the Year. However, sadly for Fan, who moved onto Dundee weeks after leading China to their historic qualification, he got injured a pre-World Cup friendly, limiting his participation to a solitary appearance in the opener against Costa Rica, which proved to be his 106th and final cap while China were swept aside, failing to score or register a point in the competition.
"The heavy losses showed the gulf between us and the world's top teams,” he said. “We have a long way to go if we want to reach the level where we can compete against the world's best."
Surely it is only a matter of time before China establish themselves on the footballing stage, but until then Fan’s place in the history of his national team is secure.