Fan Zhiyi

The People's Republic of China has qualified for the FIFA World Cup "! finals for the very first time, and one of their stars is 32-year-old veteran Fan Zhiyi.

In 1998, this former national team captain became one of the first Chinese professional footballers to move to Europe when he and team mate Sun Jihai left Shanghai Shenhua for English second division club Crystal Palace for a transfer fee of 1 million. The man guiding the two men on their European adventure was former Palace and England manager Terry Venables.

Whereas Sun Jihai has since returned to China, Fan Zhiyi established himself on the European football scene, developing into one of Crystal Palace's most important players. Consistent performances and a thoroughly professional attitude soon won him the respect of his team mates and coach Alan Smith.

In October 2001, Fan headed north to Scottish Premier League club Dundee.

"I had achieved nearly everything there was to achieve in China, so I came to Britain looking for a new challenge. I command a certain respect back home now I have made it in Europe," Fan is quoted as saying.

Fan Zhiyi is an asset to his team in more ways than one; he attracts many new Chinese supporters from both Britain and China; team merchandise "especially with his name on " is much sought-after, and the directors at Crystal Palace put his presence in the team to good effect by organising a trip to faraway China.

Fan Zhiyi mainly plays in defence, though his strength in the air and his speed " with or without the ball " make him a powerful force in midfield too. His work-rate, commitment and reliability make him a valuable team-player. He was named Player of the Month three times while at Crystal Palace.

Although his playing days are far from over, Fan Zhiyi already knows what he wants to do when he retires. "When I finish my playing career I shall return to China and become a coach," Fan said in a recent interview.