KUNMING (China): Thousands of Chinese fans lined the streets yesterday to greet David Beckham and Real Madrid, together for the first time, at the start of a roadshow to boost the Spanish champions’ brand in Asia.
At a parade in the southwestern city of Kunming, where Real will train for a week before a friendly against a Chinese select team in Beijing, local club members sported tour jerseys and waved placards saying “Bienvenido” and “I Love You Beckham”.
The area’s myriad ethnic minorities, clad in ceremonial regalia, danced jigs and jiggled tambourines.
They shrieked and roared at the sight of Beckham, his streaked blond hair pulled into a pirate’s pigtails with a stud in his left ear and glowing grin on his face, peaking through layers of security.
Co-stars Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Figo – all in short-sleeved blue plaid – drew smaller media hordes.
Real fever has hit China in the weeks leading up to Real’s arrival, jumpstarted by Beckham’s move from Manchester United for a fee worth up to 35 million euro (US$40.21 million) and fuelled by a tirelessly opportunistic sporting paparazzi.
The Spanish champions – known as “Los Galacticos” because of their galaxy of talented players – hope the exposure will help them challenge the English Premier League’s presence on jerseys, billboards and television screens in the Far East.
“This trip should make a big difference,” said fan Zhou Song, 27, a factory worker for the state-owned cigarette giant and football sponsors hosting Real’s Kunming gig, the Hongta Group.
Beyond police barricades blocking their view, die-hard youngsters wore cheap pirated versions of Real’s newly-minted white jerseys with black stripes and Beckham’s number “23”.
One exception was 13-year-old Li Yijie, decked out in a Manchester United kit with Beckham’s old number “7”.
“I was disappointed when Beckham left,” he said shyly. “I still like Manchester United.”
Real arrived by chartered jet from Madrid with an entourage comprising team chefs and Beckham’s bodyguards but no wives or female companions. The England captain’s bride, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham, was reportedly in Hollywood.
The team will stay at a villa within the confines of the training pad that China’s national team use in winter.
Real will be encircled by the green, tranquil Dianchi lake and a jagged wall of verdant hills said to resemble a “sleeping beauty” – plus hundreds of foreign and Chinese journalists.
The club will play friendlies in Beijing, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Bangkok during the 17-day tour and pocket 8 million euro (US$9.2 million) from four matches.
Later yesterday, the squad was due to attend a banquet hosted by the provincial government. Twice daily practices – closed except to media, officials and a few hundred selected fans – begin today.
The team and organisers have made it clear the purpose of the Kunming leg is for the squad to train for the new season.
However, newspapers say a range of activities are being cooked up, should the team wish to relax a little.
At the nearby National Minorities Village theme park, four circus elephants have been honing their ball skills to impress the visiting players. They also have another nimble stunt prepared for the Real boys’ pleasure – pachyderm massage. – Reuters