In China's quest to conquer world soccer, fans feel left behind

Mon Jul 25, 2016 4:09am EDT
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By David Stanway

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Big money signings and investments in storied European clubs, and the backing of a president who is an avid soccer fan: things should be looking up for millions of Chinese supporting the 'beautiful game'.

Not so, say some long-time football enthusiasts like Bian Minming, who fear the game is being taken away from them.

Chinese soccer's new-found cash also means a deluge of heavy-handed corporate sponsorships, and Bian and others say that hampers Beijing's aim of nurturing a grass-roots base for the sport and homegrown talent.

All footballing nations have struggled to balance the interests of commercial sponsors with those of hardcore fans, but in China, encouraged by President Xi Jinping to become a soccer superpower, investors hold all the cards.

All 16 clubs in China's top league have been forced to incorporate the names of new owners or sponsors in their team names - constant changes that irritate fans. Others clubs been forced to move home, sometimes more than once.

"The football association needs to learn," said Bian, who protested moves to rebrand Shanghai Shenhua, the club he follows. "The league shouldn't allow clubs to keep changing names, because only then will they be able to attract more fans."

The Chinese football association did not respond to a request for comment.

China is currently hosting some of Europe's biggest clubs, who flock to China to tap a millions-strong pool of fans and some deep-pocketed investors.   Continued...

Fans watch a local soccer match between Shanghai SIPG Football Club and Shanghai Greenland Shenhua Football Club, at Hongkou Football Stadium, Shanghai, China, July 17, 2016. REUTERS/David Stanway