HANOI: Football superstar David Beckham's promotional swing through Asia cemented his iconic status in the region, but the jury is out on whether the England captain's popularity will continue when he completes his transfer to Read Madrid.
From the moment he touched down in Japan on June 18, the pony-tailed England captain was mobbed by admirers desperate to catch a glimpse of the man whose frequent change of hairstyle sends devoted fans running to the salons.
In Vietnam's southern metropolis of Ho Chi Minh City last Wednesday, baton-wielding riot police backed by gun-toting soldiers had to force back more than 1,000 screaming fans as Beckham left a city stadium.
“I just can't help myself,” said Le Nguyen Thanh Uyen, 16, as tears rolled down her cheeks. “He is standing just a few metres away from me and then he will leave and I will probably never see him again.”
Similar scenes of hero-worship were witnessed in Thailand and Malaysia, the two other legs of his four-nation tour.
The reasons behind Asia's Beckham-mania lie beyond the midfielder's 10 seasons with Manchester United, arguably the most famous club in the world.
His looks, love of fashion and links to the celebrity world of his popstar wife, Victoria, have generated an appeal that transcends sport, according to Roger Crutchley, sports editor of the Bangkok Post.
Even without a sizeable American fan club, the 28-year-old can already make a reasonable claim to be the most famous athlete on the planet. Certainly in Asia, only Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan could even come close to generating the same kind of hysteria.
“He is one of the top names you can think of for an advertisement board,” said Reiko Suzuki, research director at Dentsu Communications Institute, a consumer and lifestyle research firm in Tokyo.
But the million-dollar question – and it really is in Beckham's case – is whether Asian interest surrounding football's glamour boy will wane next season when he pulls on a Real Madrid shirt.
Spain's Primera Liga is shown live on the ESPN STAR Sports cable and satellite network across the region, as is the English Premier League, which is also carried on free-to-air television in many countries.
But despite featuring the world-class talents of the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo, Real Madrid and the Spanish domestic league have yet to capture Asia's imagination as much as Manchester United and the Premiership have done.
“The problem facing Spanish football is that the live matches are shown in the early hours of the morning in most parts of Asia, while live English games are in broadcast in the evening, which makes ideal viewing,” said Crutchley.
“So in terms of whether fans will tune into La Liga to follow Beckham's exploits, some will I'm sure, but from a practical point of view not as many people will be seeing him perform week-in week-out as they did before.”
Beckham's Asian fans, however, will have another opportunity to see him in the flesh when Real Madrid tour China, Japan, Hong Kong and Malaysia from July 24.
The Spanish champions under new manager Carlos Queiroz will play a Chinese XI in Beijing on August 2, FC Tokyo in Tokyo on August 5 and the Chinese national team in Hong Kong on August 8, before wrapping up their trip with a match against Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur on August 10.
With Beckham, and the publicity machine that accompanies him, Real Madrid will be looking to open up the lucrative Asian market.
The star's iconic status translates to big bucks, as Manchester United's dominance of the region's increasingly profitable football marketing industry illustrates.
The English league champions have opened at least 10 of their own 'Mega Stores' across Asia over the past three years and sales of Beckham products, particularly his No. 7 shirts, have proved the core of their business.
No slouches themselves in the marketing department and aware of the need to keep the publicity machine cranking in the region to see off any rivals, the English Fooball Association has sanctioned the Premier League Asia Cup.
Featuring Newcastle United, Chelsea, Birmingham City and the Malaysian national team, the four-day competition in Kuala Lumpur begins on July 24 and is expected to be a sell-out.
Also eager to cash in on their growing Asian fan base are Liverpool, whose star striker Michael Owen is also a household name in the region and second only to Beckham in terms of popularity.
The Worthington Cup holders will play Thailand's national team in Bangkok on July 24 and three days later face Hong Kong in the former British territory.
But while the four touring Premiership teams will undoubtedly fill the stands, but they're unlikely to generate many tears. – AFP