Becks’ ambassador role gives Chinese football an image boost, but will do little to tackle the deep-rooted corruption

“Little Becks, we love you,” was a popular online refrain during David Beckham’s recent 4-day trip to China. Taking advantage of the international break, the 37-year-old midfielder temporarily left Paris – he plays for Paris Saint-Germain – to visit the Far East, where he has officially been appointed as ambassador for his sport in China.

Mr. Beckham was invited by the China Football Association and visited schools and local football teams in Wuhan, Qingdao and Beijing. While in the capital, he spoke at Peking University – the country’s most prestigious university – and offered an unusual show to China’s top students: pulling up his shirt, he showed a vertical tattoo written in hanzi, Chinese characters. Probably more embarrassing was slipping and falling on the ground in Wuhan, where he appeared at a local football pitch wearing a suit and tie.

David Beckham

David Beckham plays soccer with students of Beijing's No. 2 High School during an event to promote the sport in China recently. Pic: AP.

The trip was organized in order to boost interest in football among young Chinese and help restore the image of the national league, which has recently suffered from a massive wave of scandals involving bribes, manipulated referees, and match-fixing. It was clear that the widespread corruption reached the very top of the administration when Nan Yong, the boss of the Chinese Football Association, confessed that players could buy spots on the national team.

Whether this will be a successful strategy is not clear. Despite being relatively old, David Beckham is one of the most popular players in the world and the attention the media paid to his international travel will arguably add to the visibility of the Chinese Super League (CSL). But it will hardly be enough to solve its deep-rooted problems. Zhang Chi, founder of Hubei Emo Football Fan Club, told the Global Times that, “fundamentally, what Chinese football needs is establishing good order, improving rules and regulations and creating an environment where more and more kids come to play and are able to develop”, adding that “it is more important than appointing an image ambassador”.

Despite his “ambassadorship”, Mr. Beckham refused to acknowledge any role in tackling the malaise in Chinese football, saying that he is not a politician and has nothing to do with what happened in the past. “I am not here to clear up anything. I am here to educate the children and give them a chance of becoming professional footballers,” he said while in the capital. He did not offer any information on his compensation either, but the Oriental Sports Daily reported in February that his three travels would grant him 2 million euros.

Opinions on Weibo, the Chinese Twitter, are divided between those who cheer the event and those who see it as a waste of money. The prevailing sentiment seems to be the same expressed by experts: good that he came, but it won’t make much of a difference. One user, for example, argued: “Beckham is indeed very handsome, I really appreciate his diligence in work! However, the fact that the Chinese football association has reached out to him is mere entertainment, they might as well invest that money in youth football. It would be better if they were to use the funds to do some actual business.” Another similarly pointed out that the trip “will only allow more children to enjoy the fun of football”, but it “will not change the corruption in Chinese football”.

Beckham’s China trip is also feeding rumors that he may soon leave Paris to play for Shanghai Shenhua in China. Such a decision would inevitably raise once again the issue of expensive image over more solid substance, especially after last year the Shanghai team enlisted and then suddenly lost both Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, two big names from the English Premier League.