Fan mania greets European football giants in China

Shenzhen (China) (AFP) - Chinese football fan Liu Shu's allegiance to AC Milan is impossible to miss, what with his Mohawk hair and beard dyed in the red and black of the Rossoneri especially for the team's visit to his country.

Liu is one of the millions of Chinese fans who have been swept up in the mania that has followed the course of some of Europe's largest football clubs as they have toured China this past week.

Along with AC Milan there have been appearances by fellow Italians Inter Milan and German giants Bayern Munich, while superstar Cristiano Ronaldo and the Galacticos of Real Madrid are set to have their first official public turn-out on Sunday evening.

"For many Chinese today like me, football is our life," said the 30-year-old Liu, a commercial designer by trade.

"I first saw AC Milan play on television when I was six years old and they are in my heart. I love the history of the club, and the spirit with which the team plays, and to get to see them play in my home town is a dream come true."

AC Milan downed their cross-city rivals Inter 1-0 at the Shenzhen Universade Sports Centre Saturday in a lacklustre encounter played in front of around 25,000 fans.

But no-one during these pre-season tours pretends it's all about the football -- the world's largest clubs are increasingly setting up commercial operations in China, where the game is the country's leading sport.

- Marketing pitch -

Passion for football is fuelled by the growth of a national league which was only outspent by the English Premier League in terms of players' transfers last winter, according to statistics from German website Transfermarkt, and which has the full support of President Xi Jinping, an "avid" fan.

The two Milans and Real are in the country for the first edition of the International Champions Cup China, which also has editions in the United States and Australia this year.

While Bayern beat Spain's Valencia 4-1 last Saturday in Beijing, before a 1-0 win over Inter in Shanghai and a loss on penalties to local outfit Guangzhou Evergrande.

The Germans labelled their excursion the Audi Summer Tour China, backed by the Volkswagen Group as its seeks to spread its brand across the world's second largest car market outside the United States, and also used the opportunity to launch a web shop targeted specifically at the Chinese market.

The China Daily newspaper claimed last week Bayern has around 90 million fans across the country -- more than there are people in Germany -- and China's main sports broadcasters CCTV-5 followed the tour everywhere.

As well as coverage of the games, there were studio guest appearances from Bayern stars Thomas Muller and Manuel Neuer, seen testing their table tennis skills, and a segment following the club's poster boy Mario Gotze as he received some tips on balance from a female wushu warrior.

Twenty-year-old university student Zcalory Zhou was among around 400 members of the local branch of the Bayern Munich fan club on hand in Guangzhou for the club's clash with Evergrande.

"I became a fan in the sixth minute of the opening game of the 2006 World Cup when I saw Bayern's Philipp Lahm score for Germany against Costa Rica," he said.

"Bayern are a team that are successful and have class, and I love the way they are always moving the ball around. We follow the China league, too, but think Bayern are something special."

The action on the pitch continues Monday when Real take on Inter at the Tianhe Stadium in Guangzhou, before drawing to a close with Real v AC Milan in Shanghai on Thursday.