Ryan Giggs saw first-hand how David Beckham was worshipped in East Asia when they toured countries such as China and Japan during their playing days at Manchester United.
So when Giggs compared the hero’s welcome Gareth Bale received in China with Wales last year to the fanfare which Beckham inspired in the Far East, he was speaking from a position of authority.
“It’s the same when Becks came into the [United] team. He took the limelight away from me,” Giggs said at the 2018 China Cup, where he was managing Wales.
“Gareth would have been out here in the Far East plenty of times with Real Madrid.
“Huge teams like United, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich – the players are used to the adulation they get, especially in this part of the world, because footballers are treated like gods.”
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Beckham remains a global icon of the game and his marketability owes much to his popularity in Asia, which rose to stratospheric levels when he represented England at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, and grew even greater after he joined Real Madrid a year later.
Bale’s then world record move to the Spanish giants in 2013 had a similar effect on his profile, evident as he was mobbed at Nanning Airport before last year’s China Cup and then cheered wildly by the home fans even as he scored a hat-trick during Wales’ thumping win over the hosts.
Now the Welshman is “very close” to joining Jiangsu Suning in the Chinese Super League on a three-year deal.
If such a transfer were to materialise, Bale would represent the league’s highest-profile acquisition yet – as Beckham’s 2007 move to LA Galaxy was for Major League Soccer.
So how could Bale’s potential move to China affect his own future, the perception of Chinese football and Wales’ international prospects?
An historic moment for Chinese football?
When Beckham joined LA Galaxy in 2007, MLS commissioner Don Garber proclaimed it “one of the most important moments for soccer in this country and perhaps the history of professional sport”.
Such hyperbole could have been a burden but Beckham’s legacy included back-to-back MLS Cups for the Galaxy, a rise in the league’s average attendances and a spike in interest in the MLS thanks to his celebrity status.
Beckham certainly helped boost the profile of the MLS and, while other players may have been more influential on the field, his time at the Galaxy can justifiably be considered a watershed moment for domestic football in the United States.
Players such as Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard followed Beckham to the MLS, and Chinese Super League bosses would hope Bale could have a similar impact on their competition.
The league’s highest-profile recruits so far have included the likes of Carlos Tevez, Didier Drogba and Hulk, earning some of the highest salaries in the world during their various stays in China.
But Bale would dwarf all his predecessors, both in status and earning power.
Having just turned 30, he is not at his peak but young enough to prosper at the top level for a few years, and his success with Real Madrid has enhanced his global marketability.
That is why Jiangsu Suning are reportedly prepared to make Bale the first footballer to earn £1m a week.
They are among the wealthiest of China’s supremely rich clubs and, as their current foreign players are Brazilian midfielder Alex Teixeira and Italy internationals Eder and Gabriel Paletta, Jiangsu could be in the market for a bona fide marquee signing.
Bale’s time at the China Cup demonstrated his mass appeal in the country and, when he was asked about the prospect of moving to China, the Welshman did not rule anything out.
“Whenever I come to China we always have such an amazing reception from the Chinese fans,” Bale said at the time.
“It’s a great country with great people. I’m sure that if I ever did come I’ll be looked after very well.”
Beginning of the end, or could Bale and Wales prosper?
Some worry that a footballer’s move to a league less prestigious than its European counterparts represents the beginning of the end of a career, holding out in the twilight years for one last big contract.
That has traditionally been the case for most foreign signings in the Chinese Super League, though that trend appears to be changing.
Brazil midfielder Oscar, for example, left Chelsea for Shanghai SIPG when he was 25, while his countryman, ex-Tottenham midfielder Paulinho, moved to Barcelona from Guangzhou Evergrande in 2017, albeit returning to the Chinese club a year later.
Those two career paths would suggest the Chinese Super League is more than the lucrative retirement home it might once have been.
Wales may also take encouragement from Marek Hamsik, Napoli’s all-time leading goalscorer who joined Dalian Yifang earlier this year but remains as influential as ever as Slovakia’s captain.
The 31-year-old midfielder is his country’s record cap holder and goalscorer and, when Slovakia faced Wales in a Euro 2020 qualifier in March, there were no indications that his move to China had diminished his ability.
Beckham is another who continued his international career after leaving European club football, winning 19 of his 115 England caps after making his LA Galaxy debut aged 32.
One contributing factor to Beckham’s prolonged England career was the fact he had two loan spells at AC Milan during his five years at LA Galaxy.
The dates of the MLS season overlapped with European leagues in a way which allowed Beckham to play for both clubs over the course of a year, even if it angered some Galaxy fans who questioned his commitment to the club.
In theory, Bale could do something similar. The Chinese Super League runs between March and December, creating a potential window of opportunity to play in Europe during the winter.
So if Bale felt he needed to be playing at the highest level to keep himself sharp for Wales, could this be a way of doing so in Europe while still accumulating great wealth in China?
Like Beckham, that could be in Milan.
Bale’s purported suitors in China, Jiangsu Suning, are owned by Suning Group, which owns the majority of shares in Inter Milan.
Bale’s agent, Jonathan Barnett, has dismissed the suggestion of a permanent transfer to Inter this summer but, should a move to China materialise, a subsequent loan to the San Siro might not be beyond the realms of possibility.
For the time being Barnett remains coy about the Wales forward’s potential destinations, though he has told BBC Sport Wales he is “working on a few things” given Bale’s increasingly likely departure from Real Madrid.
There may be some who have reservations about a move to China but, as Beckham and others have shown, exploring new footballing worlds may not be a harbinger of the end but the dawn of a new era.