Chinese students are learning English in Stockport, with football and kebabs on the side. Hugh Wilson reports
Nichola Cortese's class is filled with familiar names. Alan Shearer is here. So is Ronaldo. David Beckham is late. After lunch, they will be limbering up for fitness training and five-a-side, as you might expect, but this morning the lesson is English. Alan Shearer is struggling to explain to Roberto Baggio that he wants a ticket to the town centre.
Shearer, Beckham and Baggio are really Gao Zheng, Yi Li and Zhe Zuo, and their English class is an integral part of a new partnership between Stockport County football club and Aquinas college, a local sixth form.
They are attempting to tap into the growing Chinese market by offering a package of football coaching and English lessons to talented Chinese students. The worldwide popularity of football, coupled with the ubiquity of English, is offering an opportunity for both club and college.
The students - who insist on their footballing pseudonyms - are vetted by agencies in China, with the main criteria for selection being a talent for the beautiful game and parents wealthy enough to afford pound;9,000 fees.
In return, their sons (and at the moment it is only sons) get a year of intensive courses - English and information and communications technology in the mornings, football in the afternoons. The students, who are aged between 16 and 19 are housed with local families who receive a weekly payment to cover living expenses.
A pilot scheme last year proved the viability of the initiative and, this year, when all visa problems have been ironed out, the college expects about 20 students. They might have come for the football, but the college thinks their parents have been seduced by the complete package.
"I think English - and to a lesser extent ICT - are an essential part of it," says Nichola Cortese. "Even the most optimistic parents must realise that not all or even many of their sons will go on and make a living from football, but, from what the students tell me, having English in China is a huge boost to your future prospects."
Aquinas is already full-to-bursting, but Mark Sutherland, assistant principal, says it jumped at the chance to take part in the scheme. "We are heavily over-subscribed but still thought it was very worthwhile finding room because of the cultural diversity, and just because it's such an exciting initiative. We have a reputation for teaching A-levels to clever kids. This was offering something different."
And the college also believes that it is part of its duty to the wider community to help another local institution - the football club - to exploit new sources of revenue. County is languishing near the bottom of the second division and makes no secret of the fact that part of the attraction of the scheme is the possibility of unearthing a Chinese David Beckham, or at least a couple of footballers good enough to grace the second division. More importantly, it is also a chance for the club to exploit links with western China that have been painstakingly developed over a number of years.
"As a commercial organisation, our philosophy is to give something to the community before taking from it," says Steve Bellis, commercial general manager of Stockport County. "That's the philosophy we took to China. We committed a lot of time and effort building the relationship, including paying for 25 underprivileged Chinese youngsters to come to Stockport for a nine-week football school. We've worked very hard to earn the right to be commercial. The current scheme with Aquinas is a money-making scheme for the club but it's only been possible because of the effort Stockport County has already put in. For every 10 who can pay for the school, we'll try and invite one who can't."
Other clubs are looking enviously at Stockport's success in China, which now accounts for 30 per cent of its revenue. But the initiatives are unlikely to end there. There are plans to expand the current scheme with Aquinas, which is expected to become an annual event. There is even talk of setting up joint football and English schools in China itself. Most ambitiously of all, there is a chance that a team from Western China with either Stockport or County in the name - and modelled on the Cheshire template - will soon be competing in the Chinese league.
Back in the classroom, David Beckham and Alan Shearer are still hard at work interpreting a bus timetable. "It's very important to speak English in China,' says Shearer. "The first thing they ask in a job interview is 'do you speak English? The football training is much better here too."
And what do they like about English life? "Casinos," says Shearer. "Girls and kebabs," says Baggio. Spoken like true professionals.