China’s biggest domestic auto brand signalled its ambition on Friday to become a global player by signing Argentine football star Lionel Messi as an international ambassador to promote its brands.

Chery Automobile Co. made the announcement at the Beijing auto show, where it plans to show 29 vehicles including four alternative fuel models.

Messi is the reigning FIFA Player of the Year and stars for Spanish giants Barcelona.

The Beijing show has become a focal point for a scramble by automakers for a piece of China’s fast—growing market.

The show, in a country with almost no private cars 15 years ago, has risen to the top ranks of global auto industry events as China’s explosive sales growth drove this market past the United States in 2009 to become the world’s biggest.

Foreign automakers are pushing to expand sales in China while young but ambitious local brands such as Volvo buyer Geely want to raise their profile. The auto show opened on Friday to the media and opens on Tuesday to the general public.

Sales elsewhere are so weak that China accounts for most or all the global profits for major producers such as General Motors Co., Volkswagen AG and Daimler, said John Zeng, an auto industry analyst for IHS Global Insight.

“The real profit is coming from China,” Mr. Zeng said. “China is very important for global automakers both for profits and sales volume.”

China’s auto market shrugged off the global crisis and sales soared an eye—popping 45 percent last year to 13.6 million vehicles, well ahead of the 10.5 million units sold in the United States. Sales have been boosted by China’s economic rebound, which saw growth accelerate to 11.9 percent in the first quarter of this year.

More double—digit sales growth is forecast for this year, though analysts say it should slow from 2009’s breakneck pace as Beijing winds down its stimulus and cools bank lending to head off an upsurge in inflation.

Foreign brands are more aggressive than ever this year in Beijing, where organizers say a total of 990 vehicles are to be displayed, from motorcycles to minivans to fire trucks to futuristic concept cars.

GM is premiering its all—electric Volt MPV5 concept car and a Chinese—made minivan and a compact sedan. Ford’s latest Focus sedan gets an Asian debut and the company is unveiling a new concept car.

Toyota will display 50 vehicles including its latest gas—electric Prius hybrid and an electric concept car. Toyota’s image has taken a beating abroad over safety complaints but sales in China, where only a few thousand vehicles were recalled, have suffered little impact.

“By participating at this level, Toyota is expressing its highest degree of attention to this auto show and the Chinese market,” said a company statement.

Chinese automakers also are promoting themselves more aggressively than ever, and plan to unveil a total of 75 new sedans, SUVs, experimental “green” cars and other vehicles, according to the show’s organizers.

Chery spokesman Jin Yibo said the company aims to double exports this year to 100,000 vehicles and will use Messi to promote Chery’s luxury Riich brand.

“Messi is the best football player in the world, and thus he makes a great ambassador to represent our premium Riich brand,” Mr. Jin said.

The company exports to 70 developing countries in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America and brought in 200 sales agents from those areas to see its latest models, Mr. Jin said.

“Having a recognized face to promote its brand will make a big impact on Chery’s business in foreign markets,” said Liu Lixi, an analyst with Northeast Securities Co. in Shanghai. “It’s a smart move because those unfamiliar with Chinese cars need a famous ambassador to develop an initial interest.”

Other Chinese brands are developing a name abroad by partnering with well—known brands.

Geely Holding Group, a 13—year—old brand barely known abroad before it agreed in March to buy Sweden’s Volvo Cars from Ford Motor Co. for $1.8 billion, is showing 55 of its own models, including 11 new vehicles.

Geely says it hopes to boost sales this year by 22 percent over 2009 to 400,000 units.

A key theme this year is clean transportation, including cars and buses driven by fuel cells, natural gas and other alternative sources.

Beijing sees alternative vehicles as the industry’s future and is pushing its products to develop the technology, though industry analysts say gasoline will dominate the Chinese market for the foreseeable future.

BYD Co., with backing from American investor Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., which owns a 9.9 percent stake, has its all—electric e6 on show.

A company spokesman, Paul Lin, said about 100 of the cars will be put on the road as taxis in the southern city of Shenzhen by June as test vehicles, with a launch on the West Coast of the United States by the end of the year.

“Green technology for cars is more easily accepted on the West Coast, so we will launch there first and see how well the car sells.

He would not give a price, but said said the car would be “very affordable.”

BYD says it plans to double sales this year to 800,000 vehicles and expand to Europe in 2011.