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Thursday, October 8, 1998 Published at 18:14 GMT 19:14 UK

World: Asia-Pacific

Blair's 'football diplomacy' impresses Chinese

Tony Blair: "China's football a great prospect for 21st Century"

Prime Minister Tony Blair has promised to improve cultural and business links with China through one of his favourite sports - football.

The BBC's Jon Sopel: "There's not much the Chinese don't know about English football"
Mr Blair's enthusiasm for the game is expected to help UK businesses, which see football as an excellent way to gain to access China's vast emerging markets.

Announcing the sponsorship of Shanghai's Shenhua premier division club by Perkins Engines of Peterborough, Mr Blair said: "It's not a bad idea to be associated with China in football.

[ image: Students playing outside Mr Blair's hotel]
Students playing outside Mr Blair's hotel
"It shows that our relationship is not just trade and commerce, but culture and sports."

Perkins Engines' Michael Baunton went further, saying: "I think the standard of football here is excellent, I think it's very well supported and I think it's an excellent way of building bridges between our two countries."

Football is fast overtaking table tennis as China's number one sport, reaching such a level of importance that the national team issued a formal apology to the Chinese people when they failed to qualify for the 1998 World Cup.

Mr Blair said Chinese football had great potential for the 21st Century and promised that the UK would do everything it could to help the sport develop.

[ image: Crystal Palace: The first UK club to sign Chinese talent]
Crystal Palace: The first UK club to sign Chinese talent
"The fact that there are (Chinese) players playing in England now is a sign of the future," he said, referring to the signing of Chinese international defenders Fan Zhiyi and Sun Jihai by London club Crystal Palace in August.

The Managing Director of Crystal Palace, Phil Alexander, is also in Shanghai to discuss a possible television deal.

"We're talking to television companies about maybe taking our games live, so there's lots of opportunities, lots of meetings and it's been a fabulous few days," he said.

Mr Blair also met four members of the Shenhua club and autographed a football for them, before presenting a British-sponsored award to Shenhua's star midfielder Shen Si.

Shen thanked Mr Blair and said: "I love Manchester United."

He replied: "I'll let them know."

The prime minister was reportedly prevented from engaging in an impromptu kickabout by over zealous Chinese security guards.

Mr Blair has engaged in 'football diplomacy' on previous occasions, most notably when he and his French counterpart, Lionel Jospin, announced an exchange scheme for children from across the Channel to watch football in the UK.

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