SHANGHAI (Reuters) - David Beckham drew a line under China’s soccer history on Thursday, saying he hoped to inspire local children to get back into the sport.
Appointed in March as a Chinese soccer ambassador shortly before the start of the new Super League season, the former England captain faces a tough task with local soccer still in a quagmire following a long line of graft issues.
In February, two former soccer administration heads were banned for life by the Chinese Football Association for accepting bribes, while Shanghai Shenhua, who made waves by signing former Chelsea strike duo Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, were docked points for matchfixing and stripped of the 2003 title.
“When I first came on as ambassador of the Super League, I was well aware of what has happened in the past, and people question why I wanted to be involved in something that in the past had a bad name or corruption involved,” Beckham told reporters in Shanghai.
“For me, the past is the past, this is the future,” added Beckham who had to cut short his programme at the Tongji University where his arrival sparked a stampede in which at least five people were injured.
He was mobbed by some 500 fans, some pushing police officers as they tried to film Beckham.
“Beckham didn’t finish what he (was) scheduled to do here because of today’s disorder,” university student Zhou Xiru said.
“He just walked around in the field and left. I think the impression of Tongji University in Beckham’s mind must be bad.”
The image of China’s soccer has not been great either.
The graft issues and problems with on-field violence have been blamed for China’s lack of success at international level, with the team qualifying only once for the World Cup, in 2002.
Despite his retirement in May, the former Manchester United and Real Madrid midfielder remains one of world sport’s most marketable athletes and was already fulfilling his mandate by attracting fans back, officials said.
“Obviously everyone pays attention to Chinese football, we know that it is going through a rough time, but we are working very, very hard,” China Super League deputy general Zhu He Yuan said.
“We invited David Beckham to inspire kids to participate in the game and to inspire more people to watch the game and from his last two trips we have achieved this goal.”
The former Paris St Germain and LA Galaxy midfielder will continue his week-long tour with a trip to Hangzhou, a scenic lake town two hours from Shanghai.
One of England’s wealthiest footballers, Beckham has not revealed how much he is getting paid for his role.
Editing by Patrick Johnston and Clare Fallon