World sports celebrities’ visits inspire young players and fans
Scrambling for China
Published: Jun 07, 2023 10:43 PM
Former Brazilian soccer star Kaka (center) poses for a photo at an event on June 5, 2023 in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of organizers

Former Brazilian soccer star Kaka (center) poses for a photo at an event on June 5, 2023 in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of organizers

Hundreds of soccer fans, mostly in red and black, braced the scorching heat to crowd outside of a five-a-side soccer pitch on Monday in northern Beijing, in the hopes of seeing a retired soccer star who was just paying a short visit there. 

They were looking for Kaka, a Brazilian midfielder who won the prestigious Ballon d'Or award in 2007 when he was playing for Italian club AC Milan. Kaka was the last soccer player to win the award before the Ronaldo-Messi duopoly dominated the sport for a decade.

Kaka participated in a youth girls' soccer charity event organized by the China Friendship Foundation for Peace and Development and Chinese consumer electronics manufacturer Oppo, who is sponsoring the European Champions League. 

Kaka provided training guidance to the girls from Tsinghua University Primary School of Beijing and Yuanbao Experimental School of Southwest China's Guizhou Province. 

"Football is not just about a sport, it is part of my character that helped me to be a better person," Kaka told the Global Times. 

"I hope it can help these kids as well and their dream to play football." 

Kaka is set to head to Istanbul, Turkey, where the European Champions League Final will be held on Sunday, along with the girls from the Yuanbao school. Before their departure from Beijing, Kaka walked to the outskirts of the pitch, which is isolated from the outside by fences, to greet fans who endured scorching temperatures that hit 35 C that afternoon.

Leading the way

Kaka's visit to Beijing heralds a wave of soccer stars coming to China, as 2022 FIFA World Cup winners Argentina will play a friendly against Australia on June 15 at the iconic Workers' Stadium in Beijing.

Thousands of fans were thrilled when the match was announced on May 22, as seven-time Ballon d'Or winner Lionel Messi is expected to take part in Argentina's trip to China.

The team's popularity is seen in the sales of magazines that feature the team.

An insider with a soccer-specialized publisher told the Global Times that their special on Argentina's win at the World Cup, initially published shortly after La Albiceleste's triumph in December 2022, remains the most popular production for the publisher. Facing consistently growing demand, the issue has been reprinted three times in 2023, the insider told the Global Times. 

Due to the limited time frame for hosting the friendly, the organizers have faced some marketing issues, which could possibly limit the income earned by the event sponsors. To date, only a liquor sponsor and a bottled water sponsor have been announced by the organizers. 

In response, ticket prices for the match were set at considerably costly rates, ranging from 580 yuan ($82) to 4,800 yuan. Despite this, the first batch of the tickets sold out in just 20 minutes after they were made available on Monday. The second batch of tickets will go on sale on Thursday. 

It is expected that the Argentine stars will engage in a series of commercial activities upon their arrival.

Girls play soccer at a charity match on June 5, 2023 in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of organizers

Girls play soccer at a charity match on June 5, 2023 in Beijing. Photo: Courtesy of organizers

Fulfilling dreams

Some netizens say that these stars are visiting and playing purely to make money, but it is crucial to recognize the importance of these cultural interactions, analysts have said.

"Domestic leagues often struggle to provide high-level competitions, making it necessary to introduce matches between national teams or clubs," said Mao Jiale, a Chengdu-based sports commentator. 

"For the Chinese soccer fans whose idols play for clubs overseas, the opportunity to see them up close is a dream come true."

He also noted that as many local fans are unable to attend international matches due to geographical constraints, bringing the stars to their doorstep not only fulfills their dreams, but also stimulates the economy as it increases consumption in the sports industry.

Soccer stars from Spanish top-tier soccer league La Liga may also visit China this summer, further enhancing fans' engagement with soccer legends. 

"Though no La Liga clubs are coming to China this summer, certain organizations are working to invite soccer legends from La Liga," an industry insider told the Global Times on Wednesday. 

The league unveiled its new logo "LL," the initials for La Liga, on June 5. Analysts believe by inviting these legends to China, it will increase the brand awareness of the new logo.

Rumors also have it that several basketball stars will also visit China before departing for the basketball World Cup, which is scheduled to be held in Asian countries Philippines, Japan and Indonesia from August 25 to September 10. 

"The interactions between international stars and local fans not only provide invaluable learning opportunities, but also inspire younger generations to strive for excellence in sports," Mao said.  

The power of an idol should never be underestimated. 

Zhou Guanyu, a motorsport racing fan supporting Fernando Alonso in 2005 when Shanghai hosted the Formula One race, later started a career as a car racing driver and now he is able to compete in F1 with his idol Alonso in the racing circuit.