On March 3, 2002, Manchester City hosted Coventry City at Maine Road in the English First Division. The home team, gunning for promotion back to the English Premier League under manager Kevin Keegan, won 4-2 thanks to goals from Darren Huckerby, Danny Tiatto and two from Shaun Wright-Phillips. That Sunday afternoon will be remembered more for the debut of Sun Jihai, who came off the bench for player-coach Stuart Pearce to play 14 minutes so inconsequential that it did not even warrant a mention in the BBC match report. Little did anyone know that Sun would come to be the player that exemplified English football’s relationship with China. This was not the China international’s first taste of English football. He had played in the same division with Crystal Palace after signing with national teammate Fan Zhiyi in the summer of 1998. The pair arrived in South London after being recommended by coach Ted Buxton, who was consulting the China national team. Fan had actually been spotted by Terry Venables two summers earlier when his England side made their ill-fated tour of Hong Kong and China ahead of Euro 96, although Sun only made his China debut that December. The infamous “Dentist’s Chair” might have a special place in the heart of England fans but the arrival of the first China internationals in English football is more of a watershed moment. In September 1998, Sun made his debut in a 3-0 League Cup second round tie against Bury in front of 2,780 fans at Gigg Lane. There were reports that 100 million watched the game back in China. “Everything was fresh to me. Living habits, local customs and practices were not the same. Although Division One was the second league, the rhythm was faster [and] players had stronger bodies. This was a big challenge, but it improved my ability,” Sun told Newsweek in a 2017 interview. Sun played 23 times for Palace before Dalian Wanda recalled him to play in their league title challenge in China. In that brief time he was hailed for his professionalism at Palace at a time when English football was still coming to terms with the changes being introduced by Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger after arriving from Japan. Fan stayed and went on to play 81 games over three seasons at Selhurst Park before moving to Dundee and then Cardiff City, via a brief spell back in Shanghai. He saw out his career in Hong Kong and China. Sun, amid reported interest from AC Milan, was brought back to England by Kevin Keegan at Manchester City, with a deal agreed in late February 2002. Keegan was excited at signing the 24-year-old, although he did not want to introduce him immediately. “Flying between China and England is not easy but he will strengthen us and that is why we have bought him,” Keegan said of the versatile Sun. “He can play all along the back line, in the centre and in midfield as well. “This is a signing that will need a week to 10 days to get adjusted,” Keegan said, and so it proved. Sun watched his new team’s game against Birmingham City before making his debut against Coventry City. He featured in another six league games before May as Manchester City went up as champions on 99 points, 10 clear of West Bromwich Albion. After spending the summer at the 2002 Fifa World Cup in Japan and South Korea, where he was injured in China’s opening group game loss against Costa Rica and sit out the Brazil and Turkey defeats, Sun went on to establish himself as first choice for City on their return to the top flight. “My playing time was relatively short, I was injured in the first 20 minutes of the tournament against Costa Rica. As part of the only team in China to stand on the world’s highest stage I have been very lucky. Although my time was not long, I was very satisfied,” he told Newsweek of that summer. Congratulations, Sun! #CFAStateVisit pic.twitter.com/7v6dQ9CcNX — Manchester City (@ManCity) October 23, 2015 “At the World Cup, we did not expect too much, we were like first grade primary school students. Our group had the winner Brazil and third-placed Turkey. We had the attitude of learning to play. Of course, if we had played well and taken chances, if we had scored a goal or had a draw … There are some regrets.” On October 26, 2002, Sun opened the scoring in a 2-0 win over Birmingham City at St Andrews, becoming the first Chinese national to score in the English Premier League. There had not been a long history of Chinese footballers in English football before Sun. Fan Frank Soo, raised by a Chinese father and English mother in Liverpool, played for Stoke City in the 1930s and represented England in wartime internationals, while Hong Kong’s Cheung Chi-doy scored one goal in two top-flight games for Blackpool in the 1960s. But by that 2002-03 season there were two. Fellow China international Li Tie signed for Everton that August (thanks in part to the club’s Chinese shirt sponsor, mobile phone company Kejian) and interest in the Premier League increased in their homeland. It reached fever pitch when the pair met for the second time that season on New Year’s Day 2003 at Goodison Park. “Since the arrival in August of the China player, Everton can claim even larger global support than Manchester United,” The Times wrote two days before the game. “They are now the most popular football team in the world’s most populous country and it is just about to get bigger.” The newspaper even went on to say the game “promises to be the most watched football match outside of a World Cup”, also reporting that 100 executives and journalists made their way from China to Liverpool. As for the viewing figures for the “Chinese derby”, t he Manchester Evening News printed that the 2-2 draw was watched by 360 million, “nearly double the previous record”. “Li did well in England and we had a few games where we were against each other, with a lot of fans watching from China,” Sun told EvertonTV in 2012. Whatever the actual viewing figures, it was clear that Sun and Li were a key part of football’s growth in China. Andy Hosie, Everton’s head of marketing, told The Times before that landmark game that “There must be 10 David Beckhams in China that have just never been found”. They still have not. Sun was followed by Li Tie and Li Weifeng at Everton, Dong Fangzhuo at Manchester United and Zheng Zhi at Charlton Athletic. Nico Yennaris also played one league game for Arsenal with the player now known as Li Ke and a China international after moving to Beijing Guoan and naturalising last year. None of them came close to Sun’s career in England. He played 123 times in the Premier League for City, scoring three goals, and would have surely played more but for injury. In 2008, he moved to Sheffield United for a season in what was by then The Championship. He played just 12 times for the Blades, in part because of an extended ban from the FA and his club for a red card against Coventry City, as they finished third in the second tier. Sun then returned to China with the Chengdu Blades before spells at Guizhou Renhe, Chongqing Lifan and Beijing Renhe, where he retired in 2016, aged 38. The China international had become a cult hero during his years at Maine Road and then the City of Manchester Stadium. Ben Chu, the economics editor of The Independent , grew up in Manchester and cited Sun describing the British-Chinese experience: “There’s still some xenophobia – more, probably, than gets reported – but there’s affection, too. “A Chinese footballer named Sun Jihai played for Manchester City (in the days before the oil money gushed). To the tune of “She’ll Be Coming ’Round the Mountain”, Sun was serenaded by fans: “Singing ai ai yippee Sun Jihai, ai ai yippee Sun Jihai, singing ai ai yippee, his dad’s got a chippy, ai ai yippee Sun Jihai.” That was certainly a lot better than the other song that City fans recall singing at the time: “Oh Sun Jihai, he’s a Chinky not a Thai.” Fan favourite or not, it was a shock when Sun was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame at Manchester’s National Football Museum in October 2015. Chinese President Xi Jinping and UK prime minister David Cameron welcomed Sun in. The decision – which The Guardian reported was made by museum management to recognise Sun’s “ambassadorial role in enhancing the profile and popularity of English football to a Chinese audience and to coincide with the state visit to the UK by President Xi Jinping” – did not go down well. Some, such as shadow sports minister Clive Efford, cried foul to The Guardian . “I don’t think [Sun’s] record justifies his selection for the hall of fame,” he said. “I think it’s a grubby little fix and I think this sort of thing has gone on around football for far too long, where money has dictated what’s happened and not what goes on on the football field.” A month later City Football Group, the club’s ownership group, announced investment of US$400 million from China Media Capital, a state-backed investment fund, for a 13 per cent stake. It was a quick return on Sun’s appointment as club ambassador by City in September 2015. Ferran Soriano, the club’s chief executive, had welcomed him back. “We believe that with Sun on board, we can build a stronger link between the club and our fans in China and help us to work more closely with our China-based partners,” Soriano said. City’s ties with China have only increased since, visiting China last summer during their preseason tour, a country where the City Football Group bought Chinese third tier side Sichuan Jiuniu last February. It’s a far cry from Sun’s early days when City’s ambitions were smaller. In 2003, City’s joint managing director Chris Bird told the Manchester Evening News before a trip to China: “I would say 2003 is going to be a development year for us. China is not going to be a quick fix. But while there is no hard and fast five- or 10-year plan, I think that is how long it will take to become part of the fabric over there. “With football the way it is in Britain today, there is a lot of pressure on clubs to find new ways of generating finance,” Bird said as he cited worries that the next Premier League TV deal would see clubs get less money as “one of the reasons we want to develop our name in China”. We all know the Premier League would become the richest league in the world with the PPTV deal for China worth US$700 million over three years, while last summer seven of its 20 teams, including Chinese-owned Wolverhampton Wanderers, toured China. That, in part, can be put down to one man. “Sun Jihai brought pride to Chinese football,” journalist Zhang Liang told ESPN FC on Sun’s retirement. “It was a golden age for the game here, especially with the World Cup qualification. Sun, as someone who could perform on the Premier League stage, achieved unprecedented feats for a Chinese player.” There are no Chinese players in England now, despite Prince William telling Xi that he would like to see more, but financially it is a golden age for English clubs in China. Still, how they could do with one of those 10 Chinese David Beckhams or another Sun Jihai.