Over the Great Wall: The legacy of Sir Alex and Manchester United in China

Columnist Peter Davis gives us an insight on the relationship between Manchester United and China
“The decision to retire is one that I have thought a great deal about and one that I have not taken lightly. It is the right time.”

Words that shook Manchester United and the English Premiership but an announcement that also shook the world and China was certainly no different, an announcement that will make waves long after this weekend’s 2-1 victory over Swansea and trophy celebrations.

In recent months there has been significant attention on the Chinese Super League for its famous transfers and infamous corruption issues but moments like Ferguson’s retirement remind followers of football in China that the sport outside of the Middle Kingdom is held in high regard here.

Probably the CSL’s most well known football personality at the moment, Guangzhou Evergrande manager Marcelo Lippi was quick to make comment on the retirement of the Manchester United chief, "I did not expect he would quit and I did not think that inside if he had the desire to quit," the Italian told 'Radio Sportiva'.

Chinese Super League stars were also quick to comment on Ferguson, “Just heard da news!! #TAKEABOW SIR ALEX FERGUSON!!” tweeted Ghanaian international and Shanghai East Asia striker Chris Dickson. While Tianjin Teda defender and Manchester United fan Erik Paartalu tweeted on the appointment of his successor, “Good luck David Moyes! Good to see another scot at old Trafford.”

Despite the inevitable compliments, it is not the stars of the CSL that this news hit most but a fan base in China so vast that the numbers speak for themselves; a study by Sporting Intelligence last year noted 108 million people in China follow Manchester United.

That number is important when considering figures by veteran analyst Dr Peter Rohlmann of PR Marketing who reported Manchester United and Real Madrid jointly share the most shirt sales with 1.4 million shirts sold between the 2007-2008 and 2011-2012 seasons.

It was only last year that long serving Manchester United defender Rio Ferdinand told the clubs website, “It’s crazy in Asia. You can’t leave your hotel in downtime or leisure time because there are so many fans there. You’d just be ushered back in or need security to go out.”

Most of world footballs big guns have a good presence in China; the Red Devils can count Barcelona, Real Madrid, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and AC Milan in their company and the club’s Chinese Weibo has over 300,000 followers. The commercial trips have proved lucrative for Manchester United, soft drinks manufacturer Wahaha and China Construction Bank both have three year agreements with the Red Devils.

The big guns have come under criticism in the past though for Asia tours that give little benefit to the leagues locally. On their tour last year, Manchester United were victorious with a modest 1-0 win over Shanghai Shenhua added to an 8-2 demolition of Hangzhou Greentown in 2011. The Chinese Super League is in full swing when Europe is in pre-season and Chinese sides put out reserve teams that make the friendlies little more than exhibition matches.

To the fans though, Sir Alex, who won nearly 900 of his games in charge and Manchester United are nothing short of adored in China, a Sina reader from Zhaoqing, Guangdong wrote “to have the opportunity to live in his time is special, I can only say he is the best in history” on news of his retirement while a Chongqing user wrote, “We are Manchester United, I believe the Red Devils spirit will continue.

Despite any negatives you can read into the popularity of the big clubs, the legacy of Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson is cemented in China and the appointment of his successor, David Moyes has been met with calm optimism by Chinese supporters, as a netizen from Chengdu, Sichuan commented, “With the Moyes decision I feel good, considering that he is the best candidate available right now.

China’s Manchester United supporters will remain committed to their adopted side and it’s team of idols it seems for a long time to come and taking the figures I have mentioned into account, Manchester United will be glad to have them.

Beijing-based Peter Davis watched Liaoning Whowin play Chengdu Blades in 2008 and has been hooked on Chinese football ever since. He is a regular contributor to Wild East Football and can be found on Twitter at @peteydavis