In a story that seems to have been treated as a mere afterthought at the bottom of the sports pages, it was announced by the Chinese Football League today that David Beckham has accepted a position as their “global football ambassador”.

Very few details of Beckham’s specific role have been forthcoming, including any financial arrangments. At first glance, the announcement seems nothing out of the ordinary. It comes with the familiar, factory-drone statement from Beckham that he is “honoured to have been asked to play such an important role at this special time in Chinese football history” and is “excited by the prospect of promoting the world’s greatest game to Chinese sports fans as I’ve seen firsthand the growing interest in football there.”

The story then, at this point, is that an uber-celebrity footballer has accepted the job of promoting the beautiful game to a new generation of bright-eyed, football loving Chinese youngsters. But dig a little deeper and there is more to this arrangement than meets the eye.

In June of last year, two high-ranking officials from the Chinese Football Federation were each sentenced to 10-and-a-half years in prison for corruption. One of the men, Xie Yalong, claimed he only signed a confession after being tortured and having his family threatened. Last month, the Chinese Football Association banned 58 people in total for corruption and Shanghai Shenhua, former employers of Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba, were fined £103,000 for fixing a match in 2003.

Shanghai Shenhua Chinese football club
Shanghai Shenhua were stripped of their 2003 league title for match-fixing.

The Chinese Football league, then, knows it needs to clean up its image, and who better to help them out than the most recognised man in global sports? Especially a man who, only a matter of months ago, announced that he would donate all of his wages from his new club Paris Saint-Germain to a children’s charity, setting himself apart from the money-chasing Drogba and Anelka?

Beckham’s philanthropic gesture was touted as the “future of social enterprise” by the Guardian and a cynical “PR stunt” by the Daily Mail. The reality is that Beckham’s juggernaut ubiquity means he is a naturally polarising figure. If he was to step in front of Parisian traffic to save a runaway pram there would be detractors accusing him of opportunism. It would seem overtly cynical to completely dismiss the gesture – certainly the children’s hospital will not be complaining.

But with Beckham’s new announcement comes more legitimate grounds for concern over his motivations. His statement was released by IMG, or the International Management Group, a US-based marketing and PR behemoth. At the bottom of the blazing press release it reads that IMG has a “10-year deal as a strategic partner and promoter of the Chinese Football League”. It also includes a quotation from Simon Fuller, Beckham’s closest advisor, who says that the appointment “really underlines the scale and reach of his global popularity.”

It begs the question of who are the real benefactors of Beckham’s appointment. IMG will be paid astronomical sums by the CFL. The CFL will be able to use the angelic reputation of the world’s most famous sportsman to brush the rampant corruption of the game under the carpet. The Chinese government will be able to paper over Xie Yalong’s claims that he was tortured. And brand Beckham will roll on.

The cynical backlash that greeted Beckham’s enormous financial contribution to a children’s hospital was unwarranted. Few would argue that the man seems to be a virtuous individual. But whether he has been badly advised, or has simply taken his eye off the ball, wading into the murky waters of Chinese football could lead to the suspicion that he might not be as selfless as he appears.

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