Football Media Watch: City PR battle may be a sign of change in China

MANCHESTER CITY, the club that turned almost everything they touched to gold last term, may not look back on their pre-season trip to China with too much relish. For some reason, the Chinese state-run news agency, Xinhua, felt moved to accuse the club of showing disrespect to local fans as well as discrimination to the Chinese media.

Interestingly, criticism of City comes at a time when there is unrest in China and Hong Kong. In China, pro-democracy protestors have been attacked and Germany has come under fire from Chinese officials for “inciting” the storming of Hong Kong’s legislative council.

The Xinhua report, by Jonathan Dixon and Vivian Ji, said City were “focused on how the club could best commercially expand into China and look to relieve Chinese fans of their money”. City are 13%-owned by China Media Capital and the City Football Group has recently added Sichuan Jiuniu, a second tier club, to its franchise.

City’s visit has fallen below the expectations of some people, notably journalists. Reports point to the promise of the club to “host exciting events in China and welcome local fans to our matches”. However, Xinhua added that the “public” training session had “the air of exclusivity and desire for the Chinese Yuan” with mostly business partners attending.

The Chinese media has also picked-up on a comment supposedly made by City coach Pep Guardiola that expressed “distaste” for a tour of China and that he preferred the US. The deciding factors, according to the report, were commercial considerations.

Guardiola has responded that the claims of arrogance and disrespect are false and that the club had enjoyed an incredible time in China. Such trips are a good way to grow popularity, make new headlines and satisfy commercial partners. It is naïve of anyone to believe that clubs are not driven by business priorities when they go off in search of new supporters and sponsors.

But City’s experience perhaps underlines that clubs cannot expect one-way benefits from broadening their global presence. China, for example, is eager to build a credible football sector and eventually host a World Cup. They have just announced a massive project to take football to 3,000 kindergartens and the online giant Alipay is investing huge amounts into women’s football.

China’s financial power, although a little less potent than it was a few years ago, remains pivotal in the global economy. From a football perspective, their influence across Europe continues to grow. Therefore, it is no longer a case of European clubs tapping into new markets – City are the second most popular European club on the social media platform Weibo – countries like China want something back in return and want to leverage relationships with European football clubs.

Nevertheless, the fact the report was instigated by a state-run agency may also have a political or distraction element to it.

While City were left baffled by the media comments, Wolves – who along with City, Newcastle and West Ham played in the Premier League Asia Trophy – won the hearts and minds of locals. Owned by China’s Fosun International, Wolves opened a new store in Shanghai and witnessed huge, enthusiastic crowds. The Birmingham Mail commented: “It was an overwhelming success”.

City, meanwhile, will return – they are undoubtedly obligated to make regular visits and with a local club poised to be playing in City colours soon, they have a stake in the development of football in China.

Sources: Birmingham Mail, South China Morning Post, BBC, Guardian, Straits Times, Manchester Evening News.




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