BEIJING // Back in the days when Real Madrid talked themselves up as the most glamorous, most watchable football team in the world, they toured the People's Republic of China. David Beckham, then the most visible sportsman on earth, made his Real debut in Beijing. Crowds held an overnight vigil outside the squad's hotel near Tiananmen Square, and in the surreal East-meets-West atmosphere, one small detail stuck out. Few of the curious Chinese exhibited their partisanship with replica shirts, but among those who did wear the colours of a major foreign team, the blue and black stripes of Italy's Inter Milan made up a small majority.
Yesterday, six years after the Real of the Galacticos toured China to introduce Beckham as a teammate of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Brazil's Ronaldo, Inter reminded the Chinese, the Italians and others around the world that Serie A has a huge cachet in the world's most popular country. Italian football has been broadcast into Chinese homes longer than its rivals in the Spanish Primera Liga or the English Premier League. And yesterday, a Chinese audience saw something other than a pre-season friendly involving the stars from afar.
The Bird's Nest, the spectacular arena which a year earlier had opened the 2008 Olympic Games, hosted the Italian Super Cup, curtain raiser to the Serie A season, between the champions, Inter and the holders of the Coppa Italia, Lazio. The crowds in China know the difference between a competitive match and a friendly. The 80,000 tickets had sold out several weeks ago. Lazio surprised the Italian champions and won the game 2-1, thanks to second-half goals from Matuzalem and Tommaso Rocchi. New arrival Samuel Eto'o pulled one back for Inter nine minutes from time.
Admittedly, Beijing is a peculiar place to kick off the Italian domestic campaign, but in the global age, no more odd than Tripoli, the capital of Libya, or New York, USA. The Italian Super Cup has travelled to both venues since the turn of the millennium, evidence that Italy has always been pragmatic about trying to sustain its international prestige and chase the foreign dollar, dinar or yuan. China is something of an obsession among Europe's superclubs and those who aspire to join their clique. Manchester United toured there last month; Chelsea were there a year ago. Real, now building a second Galactico epoch, are planning a trip next summer, and behind the promotional visits, an aggressive battle is being fought by the holders of television rights to the major leagues.
Italy may have some of the most loyal Chinese followers, brought up watching the Serie A of the illuminated 1990s. But the Premier League has an appeal, too, which is bound to swell now that free-to-air broadcasting of English matches will replace the minority, subscription coverage that Chinese fans had to cope with over the last two years. The Real president, Florentino Perez, is, meanwhile, hatching a radical plan to alter fixture times in La Liga to better accommodate TV audiences in the Far East. Afternoon kick offs in a European time zone, like those of English football and most Sunday Serie A matches, better suit the Chinese viewer. Matches starting as late as 10pm in Spain require an unsociably early rise for the enthusiast in Shanghai or Beijing.
So Inter and Lazio were putting down a marker in the Bird's Nest yesterday. Jose Mourinho had played his part as the photogenic, charismatic marshall of Serie A, a man who likes to regard himself, a bit like the flag of China, as one big star surrounded by a group of lesser ones. Mourinho's Inter have lost the biggest playing star of the coach's first season in charge, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but Mourinho, a fortnight ahead of his opening league match, looks happy with the silver lining of the deal that took Ibrahimovic to Barcelona: the arrival of Eto'o.
Inter also have another talented new centre-forward in Diego Milito, a feisty addition to midfield in Thiago Motta, and a manager still with plenty to say for himself, and plenty still to achieve in the land of the world champions, and in a football culture with a big following all over the world. email@example.com