View from Asia

China hurtling toward Beckham fix

March 8, 2013
By John Duerden

A walk around Shanghai is a walk around a fast-changing metropolis. Beijing may pride itself on its history but in the capital too the old ways are fading along with the hutongs. Among the skyscrapers and the shopping malls is a faint air of regret that China is losing something, not that anyone in the cities has the time or space to sit back and ever wonder what that may be.

It will take more than a wax statue of David Beckham to lift football in China
GettyImagesIt will take more than a wax statue of David Beckham to lift football in China

Chinese football is not allowed to be average anymore, it is not allowed to be charmingly inept or warmly weird, it has to be hurtling at breakneck speed towards some distant point marked 'developed'. China may not be the best football country in Asia but it has always been one of the most interesting. That, however, is no longer enough - both for people inside the country and out.

The football world has been waiting for China to arrive for years in the expectation that when it does, barely hinted at riches will flow. When you have 1.3 billion people in a country then the percentage of kids playing football doesn't have to be that high for giant sporting brands to make a killing, the percentage of people watching the local league doesn't have to be that high to introduce sponsors to a massive market and the percentage of people genuinely interested in the game doesn't have to be that high to have FIFA, media and big business laughing all the way to the old banks on the bund on the banks of the Huangpu river, the one constant in the city.

The whole Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka episodes were in some ways a continuation of the 'old ways'. Their arrival at Shanghai Shenhua was hailed as China's arrival on the global football map. Of course it took money, but with such big stars heading east, it could only be good for the game, so the thinking went. The fact that it didn't really work because of an egotistical club chairman more interested in promoting his new online game and selecting himself in prestigious friendlies was, of course, regrettable but it was also reassuring. It was a stylish and fascinating failure, something that only Chinese football could have done.

Such behind-the-scenes chaos meant that the former Chelsea duo didn't last long and if the international media had been quick to label the Chinese Super League as the next big thing, then the label was removed equally swiftly. Other clubs may have signed some decent foreign players and be building decent squads but the stars were just not bright enough for those far away to know or care.

Chinese fans, more familiar than most with false dawns, got on with it and started to prepare for a Super League season that promises to be genuinely fascinating. But this was not enough and the powers-that-be have decided that a new PR offensive is necessary. If Drogba and Anelka were no longer around then it had to be David Beckham. He's not being signed by a club to play (at least not yet), this is not about the talent he still has in his feet but the power he still has in his face. He is an ambassador for Chinese football.

This Beckham venture is the brainchild of IMG, an international marketing company trying to build the brand of Chinese football, and Chinese television. The midfielder is busy in France at the moment and while nobody is really sure how it will work, his new part-time job is to promote Chinese football at home and overseas.

PA PhotosThe experiment of Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka at Shanghai Shenhua did not have the desired results

At home, the league itself doesn't need much promotion, it is already the best attended in Asia and is slowly improving in terms of standard. Star power can sometimes get in the way and even with Drogba and Anelka in their team, Shanghai fans hardly turned out in massive numbers. Like anywhere else, fans respond to success and champions Guangzhou Evergrande play in front of 40,000 because they are good and get results. And if they can bring the Asian Champions League trophy back to China for the first time, then it all moves up to the next level.

For Chinese football, the long-term challenge is to get the kids playing, but it is not easy. With most metropolitan families having one child only, pressure on the young to succeed academically is fierce. Going to a good university is still pretty much the only way to get a good job. And without a good job, how are the children going to support their parents in their old age? It is a question that few can answer. It is easy, then, to understand how parents see playing football as a waste of valuable study time. And that's assuming they can find a decent place to play, easier said than done in the big cities.

Even with the Chinese love of gambling, there are no stories of new fathers placing bets on their baby boys playing for China by the age of 25. It is just not a dream that exists. Add the fact that football is not seen as a valuable pastime in its own right in terms of physical, mental and social development, then the fact that, in relative terms, for every single Chinese player who is U12 and registered, there are over two hundred in Japan, is not as shocking as it first sounds.

While the occasional presence of a smiling Englishmen, followed by an army of reporters, could change the complex and fundamental social, cultural and economic conditions that have given birth to such a situation, it is unlikely, even if his wife comes too.

The most likely solution lies in the prosaic grounds of the schools. If they can be encouraged to squeeze football into packed academic programs, there is hope that parents will see the game as a beautiful one and kids will learn what a great game it is to play. It is starting, but starting slow and small. The Chinese School Football program was born in 2009 and involves almost 6000 schools with two million children who get to play every week. The numbers sound impressive but in China, they always do. Out of 200 million in education, it's not enough.

If a few public appearances from Beckham can change all that then it would be many times more amazing and impressive than any of his career achievements but it is more likely that it will fizzle out quietly after a year or two and nothing will have changed.

International ambassadors, public relations companies and corporate marketing are going to change little. Maybe it's time just to let China find its own way, and go at its own speed. It may be slow, it may be winding and it may at times be frustrating but it will get there in the end.

Not everything has to happen tomorrow, even in China.