David Beckham becomes new face of Chinese soccer

Story highlights

Soccer star David Beckham appointed ambassador for Chinese football

Paris Saint-Germain player will help to promote the game in China and abroad

Chinese football has been hit by high-profile match-fixing scandals

Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka recently left Chinese club Shanghai Shenhua

David Beckham was a key figure in London’s drive to win hosting rights for the 2012 Olympics, and now the sports icon is taking on the challenge of boosting the image of China’s troubled soccer industry.

The world’s most populous nation has recruited the veteran Paris Saint-Germain midfielder as a global ambassador to help promote the Chinese game both at home and abroad as it combats a serious image problem caused by recent match-fix scandals and the premature departure of two high-profile foreign imports.

According to a statement released by Beckham’s management, the Chinese Football Association was drawn to the former England captain’s “credibility as one of the most admired sportsmen and iconic figures in the world as well as his outstanding sportsmanship and professionalism.”

Read: Chinese football – emerging super power or vanity project?

“I am honored to have been asked to play such an important role at this special time in Chinese football history,” declared 37-year-old Beckham, who is a worldwide celebrity following stints with Manchester United and Real Madrid in addition to his high-profile off-pitch endorsement deals.

“I’m excited by the prospect of promoting the world’s greatest game to Chinese sports fans as I’ve seen firsthand the growing interest in football there,” added Beckham, who also spent five years in Los Angeles with his former popstar wife Victoria and their four children.

“This is a wonderful sport that inspires people across the world and brings families together, so I’m relishing the opportunity of introducing more fans to the game.”

Beckham’s appointment coincides with the 20th anniversary of professional football in China, which is home to 1.3 billion people.

Read: Key match-fixing suspect “assisting” police

“We are pleased to invite Mr. Beckham to visit China at this special moment,” said a CFA official, who was not named. “While in China, he will attend the Chinese Super League (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.”

Beckham will hope to improve the reputation of Chinese football, which has been blighted by numerous scandals.

Last month Shanghai Shenhua was stripped of the CSL title it won in 2003 as part of a crackdown on match-fixing which also saw 33 lifetime bans from the sport handed out.

“There has been major corruption in the past but there have been some severe punishments of late,” Asian football writer John Duerden told CNN.

“Consequently, the situation seems to be much better. The game is cleaner and sponsors and fans have returned.

“It is hard to say that is completely clean but recent events have shown that no country can say with any certainty that it is free of corruption.”

Read: Brand Beckham moves to City of Light

Shanghai made headlines around the world after embarking on a recruitment drive which included the signings of strikers Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka from English club Chelsea, which won the European Champions League last season.

But the two transfers have not been the success Shenhua had hoped, despite paying both players more than $200,000 a week.

Drogba recently signed an 18-month contract with Turkish club Galatasaray after just 10 months in China, while Anelka joined Italian champions Juventus on a five-month loan deal in January.

“It put China in the international news and excited fans back home,” Duerden said of the duo’s move to Shanghai last year.

“It was good for the brand of the country’s football, especially at home. Other stars followed in their footsteps … the two just went to the wrong club, perhaps the worst-run club in China.”

Despite recent controversies and the departures – both permanent and temporary – of Anelka and Drogba, Duerden suggests the reputation and popularity of the CSL is on the rise.

“The popularity of the Chinese Super League is growing,” he said. “There is a lot of money there, the facilities are good and the attendances are the highest in Asia. There’s still a long way to go but it’s growing.”

Part of Beckham’s new role will be to encourage China’s youth to embrace soccer at a time when the country’s government is attempting to grow the sport.

“In schools, a massive program has just started to help train Chinese kids for the first time,” Duerden said. “It is a systematic approach and well-funded. It remains to be seen how successful it is but it certainly can’t do any harm.”