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European clubs making their way across China

By Tang Zhe (

16:20, July 24, 2012

It's soccer week in China.

Several European clubs are making their way across the country, with just about every day this week featuring big-name stars and friendly matches.

Bundesliga giant Bayern Munich kicks things off on Tuesday with a game against Beijing Guo'an at Beijing Workers Stadium. English Premier League clubs Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United will follow.

Things will climax on Friday, when Premier League champion Manchester City will face Arsenal at the Bird's Nest hours before the opening of the London Olympics.

"It won't be as friendly a game as you may think," said Manchester City captain Vincent Kompany. "Two Premier League teams play each other, whatever way you look at it, the game will remind us that we have to play each other in the league. It might not be (a true test of where) the teams are, but definitely the game will be competitive at that moment."

The Gunners see the match as a crucial milestone as the clubs try to assess their preseason preparation and new signings.

In March, Arsenal chief commercial officer Tom Fox said the team planned to bring its first-team squad. "This is a preseason preparation for us, and even though this is a friendly, we will show you what we bring to the field this summer. It will be a game and a competition," Fox said then at a news conference in Beijing.

There will also be competition off the pitch, as both clubs look to solidify their fan bases in China.

Arsenal visited Hangzhou, Zhejiang province last summer and played to a 1-1 draw with Chinese Super League club Hangzhou Greentown. The Gunners enjoyed a high level of support on the trip, and decided to continue planning trips to China.

"Traditionally, Arsenal had very quiet preseasons the last decade," Arsenal CEO Ivan Gazidis said in an interview with China Daily in June. "Last year, coming to China was a first toe in the water. It was a great cultural experience for us, very eye-opening."

The Gunners will be somewhat overshadowed by City this time. Arsenal's most popular stars — Dutch striker Robin van Persie, and newly signed German international Lukas Podolski — were not named to the 24-man Asian touring squad.

City has another connection with China. Chinese midfielder Sun Jihai played for the club from 2002-08, making 130 appearances. Sun's presence attracted considerable Chinese attention at the time and played a pivotal role in Chinese players drawing more attention from Europe.

While Sun was in the spotlight during City's last visit to Shanghai in 2006, Italian striker Mario Balotelli seems likely to be the favorite this time around.

The 21-year-old proved himself to be a dangerous shooter with his performance at Euro 2012, and with his 13 goals in the Premier League last season. His distinctive personality has gained him a following that goes beyond mainstream soccer fans.

In Italy's Euro group game against Spain, he drew attention after he hesitated for a split second and missed a golden scoring opportunity. When he tore off his top and flexed his muscles after scoring his second goal in the semifinal against Germany, the photo was digitally altered for comic effect by many, and spread widely on Chinese websites and micro blogs.

"We know that the support for English football in China is huge, and it will be interesting for us to see how much support there is for Manchester City when we visit," said City coach Roberto Mancini. "It is clear that the passion for the game is really strong, and it is important for us to connect with our supporters in China."


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