When I go for my weekly football game on Sundays at 8 or 9 in the morning, I find my Hong Kong fellow players almost always late.
The reason why they turn up late is not because they had partied all night with endless drinking and dancing. Instead, it’s because they were watching their favorite teams play in the English Premier League (EPL).
A live broadcast of Liverpool, Manchester United or Chelsea match is worth staying up for late into the night, even it means playing poorly the next morning and being half-asleep for the whole day.
My partners are not alone. Each week the EPL is broadcast in more than 200 countries and territories around the world to 643 million homes and a potential television audience of 4.7 billion people. Among them are tens of millions of people in mainland China, including President Xi Jinping.
That is why on Friday he will visit the stadium of Manchester City, one of the two big teams in the northern English city. The other, Manchester United, has won the EPL 13 times since it was formed in 1992 – against two by City – and claims 108 million supporters in China. The club is disappointed to have missed the chance to host the President and miss a golden opportunity to promote its team and the brand.
Hong Kong television stations compete fiercely for the right to broadcast the EPL. Currently, it is the Now satellite channel, which airs every game live, with repeats on following days and detailed analysis and commentary.
In addition, the major teams have their own supporters’ clubs in Hong Kong. The fans meet on match days and watch the games together in bars or restaurants, helped by beer, brandy, peanuts and potato chips. As well as cheering on their team, they bet on the result and even on who will score a goal and at what time.
A flight to the UK, tickets for a game and several nights in a hotel have become a regular prize at companies that sell consumer goods and hold lotteries to promote sales. There are now so many foreigners attending major games that local fans have started to protest; they complain that many are tourists and not real supporters.
This enormous fan base in Hong Kong, China and Asia has changed the EPL. During the summer break, the teams visit the region for friendly games and to meet their supporters. The matches are sell-outs.
The EPL has also changed its schedule for this audience. It holds games that begin at 1200 or 1245 UK time, prime evening time in Asia. The players do not like to play so early, but have no choice.
I first became aware of the football passion of the Xi generation when I went to renew my six-monthly visa at the Public Security Bureau in Beijing. The officer on the other side of the table had the right to grant – or not to grant – an extension of the visa. A refusal meant the end of the assignment in China.
So the right topic of conversation and ambience was vital. “I support Manchester United,” said one officer. “How about you?”
“The same team, of course,” I said – not the truth but just aiming to please the official. He then described the team in detail, naming half the players. No problem with the visa that day.
On the next visit, it was the same officer. It was just after Argentina had defeated England 2-1, eliminating it from the World Cup. David Beckham, the star English player, had been given a red card for fouling his opponent; his expulsion enabled the Argentine team to win.
“You British are so naïve,” he said. “The Argentines always commit these discreet fouls that the referee does not see. Then the other player retaliates and is sent off. How did Beckham not know that? Because of him, his team was eliminated.” I agreed completely with him – a visa that day too.
Xi’s passion for football means that countries inviting him include it in his schedule. As vice-president, he went to Ireland in February 2012.
The government took him to Croke Park, the centre of Gaelic sports and third largest stadium in Europe with a capacity of 82,000. While Irish officials looked on with big smiles, Xi kicked a football the length of the field and photographers captured the moment.
The photo sits on Xi’s desk in Zhongnanhai, next to one of his shapely wife; it projects an image of youth and vigor. We can expect similar images tomorrow in Manchester, where the president will be inspired by the presence of many famous players. These images will be shown all over the Chinese media.
The club will be hoping for a dramatic increase in its fanbase in the mainland and the number of kits they buy.
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