Football superstar David Beckham continued his China tour in the central city of Wuhan amid enthusiastic cheering Saturday, but many wonder if it is just some sort of publicity stunt for Chinese football which is battling to recover from corruption and match-fixing scandals.
The former England captain is on a five-day visit to three Chinese cities as a "global ambassador" for the Youth Football Program in China and the Chinese Super League (CSL), the country's top-flight league, while his current club Paris Saint-Germain are on a break.
The new appointment is seen as an attempt by the CSL to further popularize itself home and abroad and inspire young people to participate in the sport, after its image had been tarnished by a string of corruption and match-fixing scandals that resulted in dozens of referees, officials and players being jailed or banned.
Beckham's schedule in Beijing, Qingdao and Wuhan included visits to local schools and football clubs, brief kickabouts with young students - still wearing his suit, tie and shiny formal shoes - as well as news conferences.
From airports to hotels and stadiums, security was tight and crowds of fans who had gathered hours before his arrival shouted and waved banners bearing his portrait and words such as "Little Becks, we love you."
At news conferences, the 37-year-old tried to dodge questions about the scandals and his earnings from the ambassadorship. Instead, he reiterated that his focus was on educating children and developing the sport at grassroots level.
"What has gone on in the past? I am not a politician so I have nothing to do with it," he said in Beijing. "I am not here to clear up anything. I am here to educate the children and give them a chance of becoming professional footballers."
After a kickabout with pupils in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, he said he found the young people talented and would like to share his experience with them. As to the Wuhan Zall Football Club, he simply said he believed the club would be ok in the new season because it had "talent, teamwork and good people."
"Beckham's China tour will bring Chinese football and the CSL to the world stage," said Chen Xudong, general manager of the Wuhan Zall Football Club. "After winning promotion to the CSL last year, our team needs some publicity and Beckham's arrival is a good opportunity for us."
"Beckham is a big name. When he comes to China, even those who are not football fans are likely to be attracted. He will help Chinese football recover from the scandals, which hurt the confidence of club investors, fans and parents who wanted to send their children to football schools," said Zhang Chi, founder of Hubei Emo Football Fan Club.
However, skepticism arose that naming Beckham an ambassador would cost millions of euros and would be more hype than substance. Critics said there is little he can do for Chinese football, which has been plagued by problems including a shortage of local talent, inadequate training of referees and an ailing league system.
"I really don't think it's necessary and worth the money. China should spend its money training young players because Chinese football needs its own rising stars," wrote one user on China's popular Twitter-like service Sina Weibo.
"Fundamentally, what Chinese football needs is establishing good order, improving rules and regulations and creating an environment where more and more kids come to play and are able to develop," Zhang said. "It is more important than appointing an image ambassador."
"Little Becks has neither played in China like Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka, nor does he have coaching experience like Omar Troussier and Bora Milutinovic. He has no connection with the CSL, except rumors about him and Shanghai Shenhua Football Club. So (we) have to admire Mr and Mrs Beckham's ability to make money," the Changsha Evening News commented.
"It's alright with me that they chose Beckham as an ambassador at the moment, considering his healthy image," said Mei Nansheng, a 47-year-old football fan
"But we fans hope the ambassador will be a Chinese in three to five years when Chinese football really takes off."