Angie Quan still recalls the epiphany that occurred the first time she watched Liverpool football club play on television.
“It was like a religious conversion,” the Beijing resident and events planner says, crediting her fluent English, and interest in all things Liverpool, to football. “I felt like someone was . . . saying, ‘Hey, Angie, this is your team’.”
Her love affair with the 2005 Champions League winners mirrors a trend across the country as urbanisation spawns twin desires for leisure and entertainment.
Beneficiaries include Europe’s biggest teams, such as Liverpool, Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid, all of whom have gained huge followings in China and Asia more broadly in the past decade.
这一趋势的受益者包括欧洲诸多强队，比如利物浦、曼联(Manchester United)、巴塞罗那(Barcelona)和皇家马德里(Real Madrid)，近十年来，这些球队在中国乃至整个亚洲吸引了大批球迷。
“All the top European clubs have huge dollar signs in their eyes when they look at China,” says Cameron Wilson, founder of Wild East Football, an English language Chinese football blog. “People have been really going bold on Chinese football so that when it finally does explode, they will be in a position to capitalise.”
英文的中国足球博客网站“狂热东方足球”(Wild East Football)创始人卡梅隆•威尔逊(Cameron Wilson)表示：“当欧洲所有顶级足球俱乐部将目光转向中国时，他们的眼睛里闪烁着巨大的美元符号。人们对中国足球真的一直抱有大胆的想法，因此当这个市场最终爆发时，他们已经做好了从中获利的准备。”
While ticket sales and advertising have been slower to take off, merchandising is in evidence in everything from a Manchester United themed bar in Shanghai to a thriving online trade in David Beckham products (including life-sized dolls).
Wealthier buyers are putting their money into the real thing, placing dizzying bets on the success of the sport in China. Among the most eye-catching was January’s move by Wang Jianlin, China’s richest man, to invest $52m buying a stake in Atletico Madrid, Spanish league winners in 2014.
During Xi Jinping’s state visit to Britain in October, China’s president visited the training ground of Manchester City football club, where he stopped for a selfie with UK prime minister David Cameron and Sergio Aguero, the club’s star striker.
It seemed to have been a subtle hint. Last week a Chinese consortium including China Media Capital dutifully bought a 13 per cent stake in Man City’s parent company for $400m.
中国国家主席习近平在10月对英国进行了国事访问，期间他参观了曼城(Manchester City)足球俱乐部的训练场地，习近平还在此停下脚步，与英国首相戴维•卡梅伦(David Cameron)以及曼城球星塞尔吉奥•阿奎罗(Sergio Aguero)一起自拍了一张照片。
Li Ruigang, the billionaire head of CMC, also recently gave the domestic game a vote of confidence when he outbid state network CCTV to pay Rmb8bn ($1.2bn) for the TV rights to China’s super league for the next five years. This was a hefty premium on previous years, where the going rate was about Rmb50m a year.
这似乎是一个微妙的暗示。近日，一个包括华人文化产业投资基金(China Media Capital，简称CMC)在内的中国财团斥资4亿美元，收购了曼城母公司13%的股份。
Peter Schloss, chief executive at CastleHill Partners, a Beijing-based sports and media agency, says the Chinese leadership’s backing is key. “Xi Jinping is an avid soccer fan and so people are following his lead. It’s typical . . . when the government gets behind a certain sector, a lot of people pile into that sector, and the first ones in usually do make money.”
The deals have not been limited to foreign clubs. Jack Ma, chairman of Alibaba, the ecommerce group, last year took a 50 per cent stake in Guangzhou Evergrande, the best team in China that recently won the Asia Cup for the second time in three years.
北京一家体育媒体公司CastleHill Partners的首席执行官彼得•施洛斯(Peter Schloss)表示，中国领导层的支持是关键。“习近平酷爱足球，因此群众也追随着他的喜好。这很典型……当政府部门对某个领域予以支持后，许多人就扎堆到这一领域，而第一批赶来的人往往能赚到钱。”
The other compelling reason behind the push into football is that China is among the world’s most underpenetrated sports markets. Total revenues from ticketing, merchandise and advertising were estimated at $3.4bn this year, compared with $63.6bn in the US, according to consultancy PwC.
中国收购者的目光已不再局限于外国俱乐部。电商集团阿里巴巴(Alibaba)董事长马云(Jack Ma)去年收购了中国最好的球队广州恒大(Guangzhou Evergrande)50%的股份，这支球队最近刚赢得了亚洲杯，这是他们在三年里第二度捧起这座奖杯。（上图说明：在2015赛季亚冠联赛的决赛中，广州恒大的队员们正在庆祝胜利。）
But with the Chinese market among the world’s third-fastest growing, European clubs are anxious to spread their brands into the country through partnership programmes, exhibition matches, merchandise sales and Mandarin language websites.
Punters also bet big on Chinese super league matches, which have continued to grow in popularity in spite of being tarnished by a series of match-fixing scandals.
A report last year by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist party’s anti corruption watchdog, denounced “severe existing problems” with corruption in Chinese football. “Players, referees, club managers and even football association officials are mired in betting and corruption scams,” the report concluded.
Attempts continue to clean up the game. Yet another vital hurdle remains to Chinese football success — its players are just not good enough to compete in the world’s top leagues.
“There is nobody Chinese playing at a major club in Europe,” notes Mr Wilson. “That is surprising considering how desperate European clubs are to sign a really good Chinese player — that would be a great way to make themselves popular in China. ”
A superstar player would be transformative, say analysts who point to the effect Shanghai-born Yao Ming had on Chinese basketball. The former Houston Rockets player, who retired in 2011, almost single-handedly popularised basketball as a national sport in China.
President Xi has frequently said that one of his goals as leader is to help China qualify for the World Cup — and eventually also host it. Although China appeared at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, the team lost all three matches and failed to score a goal.
“My greatest hope for Chinese football is that Chinese teams can become one of best in the world,” he said ahead of his UK visit. “That football can play an important role in strengthening peoples’ physique and inspiring a relentless fighting spirit.”
Additional reporting by Ma Fangjing