Last updated : 14 January 2004 By Editor
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United will hit the commercial jackpot if the arrival of 18-year-old Chinese wonderboy Dong Fangzhou proves to be an unqualified success.

United confirmed they have secured the services of the young striker last night, even though he will have to join Belgian feeder club Royal Antwerp first as he does not yet qualify for a UK work permit.

While it is the on-field ability of the Under-23 international, who will head to Antwerp later this month, that will prove the determining factor in whether he has a long-term future at Old Trafford, it will not just be manager Sir Alex Ferguson who will be keen to know whether he makes it or not.

With a population exceeding one billion and a blossoming economy, the Chinese market is seen as one of the most lucrative on the planet.

Manchester City and Everton have already benefited from the arrivals of Sun Jihai and Li Tie respectively, and such is the Premiership's popularity in China that an estimated 300million viewers tuned in when the two clubs faced each other at the beginning of December.

That number would swell even further should Dong prove to be a success at Old Trafford, and with United due to play two games in China as part of the 2005 pre-season tour, the economic benefits could be colossal.

"Traditionally, Manchester United have always been the most popular team in China," said Liu Guang, sportswriter for the Beijing-based Xinhua news agency.

"Because of the Chinese players at Everton and Manchester City, it is about equal between the three teams now but if Dong Fangzhou proved to be a success, the commercial spin-offs would be quite spectacular.

"Already, United have set up sports shops and coffee bars and in places like Beijing and Shanghai replica shirts are available just as they are in any other city in the world."

It had been expected that United's popularity in the Far East would dip following David Beckham's departure for Real Madrid.

Instead, the club have merely stepped up their marketing campaign in an effort to maintain their support.

Sir Bobby Charlton and Wes Brown embarked on a five-day goodwill trip to China just before Christmas and the next Far East tour, which will also include two matches in Japan is expected to sell out months in advance.