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Why even David Beckham may struggle to revive Chinese football|
As David Beckham descended through the empty bleachers in Beijing's Worker's Stadium, an eerie quiet overcame the two dozen or so Chinese footballers on the pitch. Beckham, dressed in an immaculate black suit and accompanied by a roster of prim, official-looking Chinese men, smiled and waved. The players, young members of Beijing's Guo'an club team, stared back in reverential silence.
Chinese television journalists jostled to the front of the press box. "It's him," one whispered. "Xiao Bei," said another – Little Becks, the star's Chinese nickname.
But if Beckham's new appointment as the first "global ambassador" for Chinese football looks like another nice sinecure for football's biggest one-man brand, the reality might be tougher. Critics say that even Beckham may be unable to improve the state of Chinese football, an enterprise so burdened by corruption and general ineptitude that even official media treat it as an embarrassment. "Beckham has no connection with the Chinese league. Now he comes to sell its image instead of actually playing. How can he represent the league? Do we need him?" said the state newswire Xinhua.
In February, the official China Football Association fined 12 club teams and punished 58 current and former officials, players and referees for cases of match-fixing and bribery dating back a decade. China failed to clinch a position in the 2014 World Cup in Brazil after ranking below Jordan and Iraq in qualifying rounds.
"I think they have tried everything to sort out China's football problems and they can't think of any solutions, so they are trying to divert attention by bringing Beckham in," said Rowan Simons, the author of Bamboo Goalposts, a memoir about two decades of coaching and playing football in China.
Beckham's itinerary in China consists primarily of brief visits to Chinese schools and club teams in Beijing, the coastal city Qingdao and the sprawling inland metropolis Wuhan. As part of his contract with the conglomerate IMG Worldwide, which helped organise the trip, he will travel to China three times this year. At a press conference in Beijing shortly after his arrival, he left open the possibility of someday playing for a Chinese team.
Beckham also distanced himself from Chinese football's less salubrious associations. "I'm not a politician, and I'm not involved in any scandals and corruption that's gone on in the past," he said. "I'm here for the future."
Experts say that Chinese football's greatest shortcomings are systemic – a direct product of the country's top-down athletic system, beyond any individual's control. Recreational football in China is vanishingly rare – government authorities shunt promising young players through specialised sports schools where they are trained according to Stalinist athletic theory. Simons estimates that Beijing only has 80 football pitches for its 20 million residents. Even football boots, he said, are hard to find.
Furthermore, the leaders of China's football bureaucracy are, like many government officials, required to change posts every few years. This motivates them to focus on short-term solutions – star-powered public relations campaigns, for instance – that could boost their chances of promotion. "The thing is there are no three-year solutions, there's a 30-year solution," said Simons. "But a leader who only has four years cannot hear that solution."
After Beckham's first day in Beijing, Chinese microblogs overflowed with claims that the first school to host the star athlete, Shi-jia Elementary, does not allow its students to play football.
The allegations did not surprise Ma Dexing, editor-in-chief of the popular sports newspaper Titan Sports. Most Chinese parents and educators, he said, consider football a dangerous and distracting pastime. Even at a handful of government-designated "football-playing schools", students are only encouraged to play when important guests are watching. "When the leaders come, they ask the kids to play football," he said. "After the leaders leave, they do nothing."
Despite its grassroots pretensions, Beckham's meeting with Beijing Guo'an was meticulously stage-managed. After a few group photos, a player threw Beckham the ball. Still smiling in his suit and tie, Beckham shot it towards the goalie, who blocked it with his chest. The players politely applauded.
Beckham then took a second shot, which whizzed past the goalie and into the net. After more polite applause and one final group photo, Beckham strolled back up the bleacher steps – 25 minutes after his arrival – and passed out of sight. The press was shooed away, and the team resumed its quiet practice session.