Iain Hepburn | November 21, 2012
The problem with being a figurehead or a talisman, especially when you’re bringing sport to a new territory, is that if you don’t feature, folk get a bit upset.
I remember going to see Bolton Wanderers play Blackburn Rovers – incidentally, one of the worst games of football I’ve ever had to suffer through – not long after iconic Japanes footballer Hideoshi Nakata joined the Reebok side on loan.
Nakata was followed everywhere by a coterie of Japanese fans, all there waiting anxiously to see him play, and a substantial contingent of press from the country, pens poised to describe his every pass and move.
And as a tiresome match ticked past, Nakata’s involvement was confined to the occasional sprint up and down the touchline, warming up from the substitutes bench where he had been confined by ‘Big’ Sam Allardyce.
Eventually, Bolton had deployed all three of their substitutes – and Nakata was not among them. And literally at the moment the electronic board went up for the third and final replacement, and it wasn’t Nakata’s number on display, you could see pockets of fans in the stadium get up and quietly walk out. Likewise in the press box – reporters packed up their gear and wandered out into the bright late summer sun.
Still, it could have been worse. At least the Japanese fans, disappointed though they were, didn’t start hurling debris and detritus onto the pitch in anger that their hero had failed to appear.
That’s what happened last night in China. Tracy McGrady, former NBA star, joined the Chinese Basketball Association’s Qingdao Eagles last month, to delirious scenes after being mobbed at the airport.
The seven-time NBA All Star, who has a huge cult following in the country, helped sell out each of the Eagles’ pre-season exhibition matches – but things came to a juddering halt last night.
McGrady played for just one minute and 38 seconds of the match – though he did score five of Qingdao’s 13 points in the process – before being taken off, to the growing frustration of the 5,000 supporters who had turned out to see the 33-year-old.
Firstly they started shouting, demanding McGrady take to the court again. Then when he didn’t, they began showering bottles and other objects down on the court, eventually forcing the game to be stopped.
A far cry from the jubilant scenes when he arrived in the country just a few weeks earlier.
And that’s the risk you run when you’re the brand, not the team. As with Nakata’s fruitless spell at Bolton, where hopes of building a Japanese fanbase were lost because they were supporting the man, not the side, and his failure to appear just left people frustrated.
Would David Beckham suffer a similar fate if he moves out to somewhere like China in pursuit of his ‘one last challenge’, I wonder…?