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Real Madrid's Play for China's Soccer Market

Spanish soccer giants Real Madrid, led by head coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo, landed in Beijing early on Wednesday morning, scheduled to play a friendly at the capital's Workers' Stadium on Saturday with Beijing Guoan, currently ranked third in China's Super League (CSL)

All the visiting squad's superstars, David Beckham, Michael Owen, Raul Gonzales, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos, arrived for the game, part of celebrations marking the 20th anniversary of the establishment of Beijing and Madrid as sister cities.

Zhang Xigang, vice president of China's Football Association, said it would be more than a commercial game since visiting Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero would be in attendance.

The Spanish club's visits have tended to be pretty special. In 2003, their game against the Chinese team took place shortly after the first SARS outbreak and symbolized its end for many.

Despite worthy reasons such as cultural exchange and friendly visits, questions have been raised about the real reason for FIFA's "Best Club of the 20th Century" to come to China, which has only second-class players in Asia.

The soccer market in Europe has gradually become saturated, but China has only begun to develop professional soccer in the past few years and its huge potential market is like virgin land awaiting massive exploration.

In 2003, China was infected with soccer-mania for Real Madrid; large numbers of fans, many clad in white Real jerseys, expressed their anticipation and excitement as Beckham and Zidane appeared across the country.

A friendly in Kunming earned the club 6.9 million yuan (US$851,000) in takings and the overall profit from their visit to China was thought to be over 10 million yuan (US$1.23 million), causing Asian Football Confederation President Mohamed Bin Hammam to rebuke European clubs for overexploiting Asia.

In 2004, Real Madrid found that their fans in China exceeded 20 million, thrice the number in Spain, but that their income generated here amounted to 19.7 million yuan (US$2.3 million), compared to 2.9 billion yuan (US$358 million) globally.

Last October, GreatGate (Beijing) Sports & Entertainment Co. Ltd, organizer of the club's China tour, suggested they invest their technology, branding and capital into the CSL's Beijing Guoan to set up a new cooperative relationship with them.

After negotiations in January, Real Madrid was set to buy a 60 percent stake in Guoan for 200 million yuan (US$25 million), offering advanced management and training. The Beijing club would change its name to Beijing Real Madrid Guoan and help the Spanish club develop its market in China.

"Real Madrid won't see the game solely as a short-term moneymaking opportunity. It will also promote the would-be new Real Madrid Guoan brand," Liu Hongwei, manager of GreatGate, said before their arrival.

But on July 20 a news conference expected to announce the finalization of the deal was cancelled, fueling speculation that Real Madrid was reluctant to endorse the use of its brand by Guoan while it insisted on holding the majority stock, and that the trip may well end up being a friendly after all.

Real Madrid's 2005 World Tour is expected to earn 207 million yuan (US$25.5 million), 40 million yuan (US$4.9 million) from China.

(China.org.cn by Li Xiao, July 22, 2005)

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