By Andrew Warshaw, Chief Correspondent
Published on Tuesday, 05 March 2013 09:45
March 5 - Rocked by corruption and controversy, Chinese football has gone for the boldest of coups in an effort to enhance its battered image on and off the field: signing up David Beckham.
Hit by a massive match-fixing scandal and an exodus of big-name international players in the twilight of their careers, Chinese authorities hope Beckham - still one the world's most recognised and respected sporting icons - will put a positive spin on the development of the game in the world's most populous country.
The appointment will see the 37-year-old former England captain attend league matches in China and visit clubs to promote the game to children, while at the same time playing for Paris Saint-Germain in the French league.
Beckham joined PSG in January and will have a purely ambassadorial role in helping to promote the Chinese Super League which kicks off for the 10th season on Friday. "I am honoured to have been asked to play such an important role at this special time in Chinese football history," Beckham said in a trademark gushing statement.
"I'm excited by the prospect of promoting the world's greatest game to Chinese sports fans as I've seen first-hand the growing interest in football there. I'm relishing the opportunity of introducing more fans to the game."
China grabbed the headlines when players such as Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba were lured with fat contracts. But after one season, both have ended their Chinese sojourn. An even bigger blow came earlier this month when one of the country's top referees, who took charge of a game at the 2002 World Cup, was jailed for five-and-a-half years for taking bribes. In all, the Chinese Football Association also handed out 33 lifetime bans and 25 five-year bans to players and officials caught up in the scandal.
As a result, Chinese officials are banking on Beckham's huge popularity and iconic status to help restore credibility. "2013 marks the 20th anniversary of professional football in China and the special ambassadorship of David Beckham will attract global attention to Chinese football and the CSL," an unidentified CFA official was quoted as saying. "While in China, he will attend the CSL and visit clubs to get a deeper insight into football in China. He will also help us to inspire and motivate many children to participate in this beautiful game."
Interestingly, Beckham's invitation is the first such agreement in China with an overseas sportsman. How much he is being paid is of course a guarded secret but the deal will viewed by many as smacking of desperation from a Chinese standpoint. Significantly, China has only ever made the World Cup finals once, in 2002.
Simon Fuller, Beckham's business partner, nevertheless said the latest deal underlined the scale of Beckham's stature. "This is the start of a new chapter in the David Beckham story, and I'm delighted for him," Fuller said.
Mike Dolan, chairman and CEO of IMG Worldwide, which has a 10-year deal as a strategic partner and promoter of Chinese football, added: "This is the perfect time for an icon like David Beckham to be spearheading the effort to promote football in China. The combination of the 10-year anniversary of the CSL, the 20th anniversary of professional football in China and the global appeal of David Beckham practically ensures that every young person in the country will have a new found interest in the game. We expect that David's presence in the country will be massively important in popularizing the sport."
As part of the deal, it has been reported that Beckham will play in an all-star game in China in November, five months after his current contract with PSG expires. If a new PSG deal is agreed beyond the end of this season, he will reportedly ask for dispensation to make the trip. If Beckham has decided to retire by then, the match could end up bringing the curtain down on an illustrious career for the former Manchester United and Real Madrid superstar.
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