There is an old Chinese saying: 'A hero does not shed tears easily.' Fan Zhiyi, the former captain of China's national team, certainly kept a steely profile during his career that fits this description well, but it is not simply his demeanour that earned the defender hero status among his nation's fans.

Throughout his 12-year international career, during which he led the world's most populous country to its first-ever FIFA World Cup™, 'General Fan', as he is still known in his homeland, also endured plenty of hardship and adversity without resorting to a Paul Gascoigne-style show of emotion.

There was, however, one exception. It came on 7 October 2001, when in the wake of China beating Oman 1-0 to book their place at Korea/Japan 2002, the former Crystal Palace defender wrapped himself in the national flag, traipsed off the pitch and wept in the dressing room. Fan, now 38, remembers his reaction well.

"It was a success that went beyond football itself," recalled Fan, speaking exclusively to "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."

After pondering for a few seconds, he finally found the words to sum up the reason for that rare and uncharacteristic outpouring of emotion: "It was because by that time, we had waited too long and gone through too much hardship."

Conquering Asia
Like Iran's legendary and record-breaking striker Ali Daei, Fan Zhiyi broke into the international arena in Asia's Olympic qualifying tournament for Barcelona 1992. A year later, he participated in his first FIFA World Cup qualifying competition and endured his first major international disappointment when Iraq progressed at China's expense from the preliminary stage.

By the time the France 1998 preliminaries came round four years later, Fan was wearing the captain's armband. Again, his quest for a place at the world's football showpiece again ended in heartbreak, but there was consolation in the knowledge that this was still the most talented generation of Chinese footballers in memory.

"A group of talented players were coming through the ranks and we could boast a very competitive team," recalled the former defender. With much-needed international experience having been gleaned from these failed attempts, the Chinese team, under Bora Milutinovic, went into the qualifying for 2002 finals in peak form and with confidence soaring. Consequently, they won five of the first six matches in the final qualifying round to qualify with two games to spare, and Fan even managed to chip in with a couple of goals of his own.

By skippering China through to Asia's first FIFA World Cup, Fan, who was the team's driving force and a symbol of their full-blooded commitment, earned the continent's ultimate individual accolade: the AFC Player of the Year award. To this day, he remains the only Chinese player to have won this prestigious honour.

Despite their growing fame, Fan and his team-mates were brought down to earth with a bump in their debut finals, where they lost all three games to Costa Rica, Turkey and Brazil, conceding nine unanswered goals. They were, however, without their captain at his fully-fit, inspirational best.

"I got injured in a pre-tournament friendly and only played the opening game against Costa Rica," Fan explained. "The heavy losses against Brazil and Turkey showed the gulf between us and the world's top teams. We have a long way to go if we want to reach the level where we can compete against the world's best."

Birmingham bid

In his club career, having excelled in the Chinese league, including steering Shanghai Shenhua to the title in 1995, Fan became a trail-blazer by moving to English side Crystal Palace in 1998. His European adventure continued with moves to Scottish outfit Dundee and Cardiff City, before he joined Chinese first division side Shanghai Zhongbang, where he spent the twilight of his playing career before hanging up his boots in 2005.

"I hated retiring as a player because I love playing the game and I will never quit football," he said.

True to his word, Fan returned to the game at the beginning of 2007 when he accepted a coaching job with third division club Suzhou City. However, his passion for the job wasn't enough to overcome the financial difficulties facing the club, which led to him departing later the same year.

Fan's latest involvement in football is in advising Hong Kong-based Chinese businessman Carson Yeung, who recently bought 29.9 per cent of shares of the stocks of English Premiership side Birmingham City and is pursuing his dream of a full takeover. "Our target is the full control of the club in the future, which means a 100 per cent purchase of the club's stock," Fan confirmed.

This ambition may take some time to be realised, with Birmingham's board having pulled the plug on discussions with Yeung's company, Grandtop International Holdings, late last year. However, if Fan's determination as a player is matched by that of Yeung, don't bet against the Chinese consortium returning to test the Blues' resolve.

And as far for Fan himself, does he ever see himself returning to the dugout? "Why not?" he answered immediately, with typical enthusiasm. "As I said, I have never really quit football!"