Giant sponsorship deal sets China's soccer star rising

CHINA soccer received a multi-million dollar shot in the arm yesterday with the announcement that Philip Morris Asia Inc. will sponsor the 1994 Chinese national football league.

Announcing details of the venture at yesterday's press conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, cigarette company Marlboro will pump in at least US$1 million as part of the Chinese Football Association's 10-year development plan to boost Chinese soccer to a level which could one day rival the hugely successful J.League in Japan.

Aims of the development plan are also to upgrade the quality and profile of the Chinese football league.

The International Management Group (IMG) have been entrusted to marketing the big project.

The 1994 season of the Marlboro league, consisting of 12 teams, will start on April 17 and will end on November 13.

Each team will play a total of 22 matches on a home and away basis.

The 12 teams competing are Liaoning, Beijing, Guangdong, Jilin, Guangzhou, Army, Shenyang, Sichuan, Dalian, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Shandong.

CCTV will telecast one match a week live for each of the 22 weeks of the 1994 season.

Chinese soccer has come out of the ''dark ages'' by turning the league professional almost two years ago.

Soccer still remains China's most popular sport and Chinese soccer authorities are trying to upgrade the sport in the wake of China's failure to qualify for this summer's World Cup finals - despite being the world's most populous nation.

During the past year, small Chinese companies sponsored teams to compete in the professional league and for the first time, Chinese players earned wages.

The players' wages is comparatively small compared to professional leagues in Malaysia, Japan and even Hong Kong although the new sponsorship deal should upgrade players' and club salaries.

Local Tigers Sing Tao will be without their English-Cambodian goalkeeper Harvey Lim for tonight's clash with Happy Valley at Mongkok Stadium.

Lim is suffering from a neck injury but it is understood he will be fit for Sing Tao's next game against Kui Tan at the FA Cup on April 19.

Reserve Cheng Wing-keung, a former Kui Tan player, takes over for Lim tonight, while English defender Ian Docker has been named as reserve goalkeeper despite being on the team line-up as the left-back.

Sing Tao captain John Moore, who was sent off during the Viceroy Cup semi-final last month, is expected to be fined half a month's salary and could be suspended for at least two games.