David Beckham: Can He Do for Chinese Football What He Did for the MLS?

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David Beckham: Can He Do for Chinese Football What He Did for the MLS?
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

David Beckham arrived in China on Tuesday to undertake his first commitments as part of his recently announced role as a Chinese Super League ambassador (via BBC).

The trip, believed to be funded in part by Chinese state broadcaster CCTV, will see Beckham visit three Super League clubs in the coming days, as well as attending schools to promote the sport to the nation's youth.

According to the aforementioned BBC article, China has fewer than 100,000 youngsters involved in playing an organised form of football. In a population of 1.3 billion, this risible figure is some indication of the task ahead.

Explaining his role at a press event in Beijing on Wednesday, Beckham said, "I am helping in the education for young kids and young aspiring footballers.

"It's as simple as that. I am not here to clear up anything. I am here to educate the children and give them a chance of becoming professional footballers."

Thus far, the reaction has been positive. Beckham spoke of his "amazing welcome" as hundreds turned out to welcome him at the airport and at his hotel, while both, domestic and foreign, media have taken a major interest in the story.

While Beckham gave no indication as to whether he would consider a playing career in the country, his role is expected to be similar to that envisaged by Major League Soccer upon his arrival at LA Galaxy in 2007.

Besides being an important player for his Los Angeles side—winning two MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012— Beckham's move was also motivated by the desire of the league to develop its status within American society.

Soccer remains a minor sport in the U.S., but there is no doubt that the Beckham project achieved some success. Average attendances have risen, annual merchandise sales increased 231 percent and the MLS is now able to support seven extra teams in an expanded 19-team format (via Independent).

Those increases cannot all be attributed to the Englishman's influence, of course, but his arrival undoubtedly played a major role in those figures. Likewise, the Beckham-effect influenced Galaxy's ground-breaking $55 million broadcast deal with Time Warner Cable (via Yahoo).

MLS executive vice-president of communications Dan Courtemanche was under no illusions as to Beckham's impact upon Beckham's departure last November, saying, "David has over-delivered by every measure, specifically with the media coverage MLS has received. There is arguably not a football fan now who does not know the LA Galaxy.

"We have tried to measure the media coverage and put a dollar value on it, but that is just impossible due to the global appeal David has. His type of impact is invaluable and immeasurable."

The Chinese authorities hope to tap into Beckham's almost unquantifiable global media appeal. The Super League already boasts the likes of Seydou Keita, Yakubu Aiyegbeni and Lucas Barrios as playing representatives, but none hold anywhere near the mass appeal of the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star.

While it is unknown whether Beckham is being paid for his ambassadorial role, he did tell media he was not being paid for this trip specifically (via Global Post).

What is clear, though, is that after damaging recent match-fixing trials (dating back to 2003), the Chinese authorities see Beckham as the man to restore the league's reputation.

They must not waste the possible impact that he can make. His potential importance as an ambassador can be seen from both, his influence on London's successful bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games and his help in developing the MLS. He is a highly regarded figure the world over.

Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Beckham took part in a kickabout with schoolchildren in Beijing

China, though, needs someone, or something, to inspire the masses.

Attendance figures for football in the country are steadily improving and are already at levels comparable with Ligue 1, Eredivisie and the MLS (average attendances just shy of 20,000), while money is also being spent on bringing big-name talent into the league like never before.

What China needs, though, is a heavy investment in, and promotion of, school and grassroots football if the country is ever to become a serious footballing force.

The participation figures are appalling, and signs are finally emerging that the Football Association are appreciating that this is the direction to head. The recent appointment of grassroots football guru Tom Byer as a technical adviser was a major step, and Beckham could also help in this regard (via New York Times).

China has both, the population and interest, to mount a very good international football team if it can make participation in football a part of everyday culture. The CFA, clubs and the local governments must all do far more in this respect.

Beckham, if used correctly, can be the face to launch this campaign. Xiao Bei, or "Little Becks", as he is nicknamed, is bigger than just a footballer and is a much-loved figure in China. With no major footballing idols of their own to turn to, he could be the man to "inspire a generation," to coin the London 2012 motto.

Until that is seen in action, though, it remains wishful thinking. People have spoken of China's footballing potential for many years, but very little has changed, outside of better foreign player recruitment.

Football is a national embarrassment to many in China, with the national team generally providing little but disappointment to a country that craves sporting success and recognition. If Beckham can help, in any way, to change this long-standing image problem, then the officials in charge will doubtless feel that the role has been a success.

Beckham's impact, though, could, and should, go much deeper.

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