The last time Chinese soccer fans saw the former chief of the country’s national league, he was being led away in chains after receiving a ten year prison sentence for taking bribes and fixing matches.
Joining him in jail were the league’s previous boss, the former national team captain, four other players on China’s only team to play in the world cup, and last, but not least, China’s most famous referee, Lu Jun, a man nicknamed ‘golden whistle.’
The state of Chinese soccer couldn’t be worse. Enter David Beckham. “I’m not a politician, so anything that has happened in the past has nothing to do with me,” Beckham told reporters late last week, “but what is going on in the future will have something to do with me.”
The new global ambassador for Chinese soccer followed through with his promise this weekend. He offered to take a free kick in front of the Chinese media wearing a designer suit.
He slipped and fell on his butt.
Images of Beckham taking a tumble were repeated on Chinese news stations, and China’s soccer league was back to square one.
“If I were David Beckham, I’d be careful about making promises about the future of Chinese football,” says Gady Epstein, Beijing correspondent for the Economist, who has written extensively about the problems with China’s soccer league, “As China’s economy has grown, as more money has gotten into the game, there have been more opportunities for match-fixing.”
Epstein says corruption is as big a problem in China’s soccer league as it is in its one party system.
On the street in Shanghai, a soccer fan who would only give his surname, Shen, says the state of Chinese soccer is immune to a ‘mend it like Beckham’ approach. Shen says China’s soccer system is so pathetic that fewer and fewer parents are pushing their kids to play the sport. Even though he’s a soccer fan, Shen says he didn’t pay attention to Beckham’s visit. The only thing he’d heard about it was that Beckham had fallen on his behind.