Talk about March Madness.
David Beckham is no stranger to adoring crowds, but perhaps none like those he’s meeting in the world’s largest nation this week.
The former Manchester United-LA Galaxy-Paris St-Germain star is touring China as the first global ambassador for the scandal-ridden Chinese Super League.
He is scheduled to pay two more visits to China during the season from March to November to promote Chinese football.
The former England international’s new role has been widely seen as an ambitious attempt by the league to improve its image. But Beckham said his focus would be on developing the sport in China at grassroots level.
“What has gone on in the past? I am not a politician so I have nothing to do with it,” he told AFP.
“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.”
Beckham, who is known as “Little Becks” in China, also said he was not being paid for his new role. Chinese media have quoted Chinese Super League officials as saying he would receive a salary of $2.6 million from one of the world’s biggest sports agencies, AFP said.
China is also anxious for a return to the World Cup for the first time since 2002. The Chinese missed out on the 2016 tournament in Brazil thanks in part to a loss against Iraq despite the obvious discrepancies in resources.
With 1.3 billion people and a seemingly inexhaustible budget, China only has 8,000 registered youth players, The Associated Press said.
Chinese officials hope the star power of David Beckham might signal a renewal in that country, but one former coach suggests that’s not possible.
Rowan Simons spent 20 years playing and coaching in China, and said Beckham's presence is smoke and mirrors.
“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,” Simons told the Guardian.
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Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.