Instead, for footballers, it’s has become a standard part of their pre-season routine as clubs continue to whore themselves around seemingly every continent in the quest for world domination. Whatever happened to a nice domestic pre-season friendly? Now Premier League clubs schedule pre-season friendlies from the US to the Far-East, stopping in Africa (or anywhere that will pay to have them) along the way for good measure.
We all know friendlies are the football equivalent of a prawn cocktail starter – they seem glamorous and tasty enough to tickle your taste buds ahead of a main course, but ultimately you are disappointed, but it would be nice to at least have the chance to order!
The traditional summer friendlies used to allow coaches and managers to gauge the fitness of their teams as the games provided a welcome break for the players after a hard month of training where the ball is nothing but a distant dream for them. Friendlies were also the perfect occasion to introduce new signings to the fans who eagerly awaited the first sighting of a new player after weeks of speculating how they fit into the system. And lastly, and most importantly, the pre-season friendly provided a cheap way of seeing your team play in a relaxed atmosphere before the monster ticket prices of the season kicked in…now the best chance of seeing your team during the summer months is in the departure lounge at an airport (if you can afford to go on holiday & have access to the executive lounge!).
Over the last decade, Premier League clubs have turned pre-season friendlies into something more sinister, a huge marketing operation to promote themselves around the world, thriving off the back of the Premier League’s global popularity, as teams fight battles on all fronts to win global revenue-generating fans.
While Football League clubs spend their summers mainly in Britain or, if they are lucky, a training camp at altitude in Ireland, the big boys take on intercontinental trips that are every frequent flyer’s wet dream and every domestic fans worst nightmare.
Destinations are carefully selected to maximise the financial and commercial impact of the tour and nothing generates local shirt sales like a player from overseas playing for that particular Premier League team…does anyone remember the level of hysteria generated by Ji-Sung Park and Manchester United’s tours in the Far East in the last few years? Lucky they signed Kagawa or they could have missed out on those all important shirt sales.
The Korean embarked in another tour of Asia this summer after joining QPR, owned by Malaysian tycoon Tony Fernandes, proof that the commercial appeal of Premier League in the far-East isn’t restricted exclusively to the top six clubs. So important is the fight for global fans, QPR even had a Air Asia plan painted especially for the trip, how’s that for a PR stunt! I wonder if that puppy will be flying QPR’s fans around for free to away games this coming season…
American-owned Liverpool have instead opted for a US/Canada tour, which took them to Toronto, Baltimore and Boston where they played at Fenway Park – the home of Boston Red Sox who are also owned by John W Henry, hows the surface boys? Oh, that the risk of hideous football or increased chances of injury doesn’t matter? At least your Mrs will think you have chosen an interesting holiday destination until she find your packing your full replica kit and asks why?
Arsenal and Manchester City travelled to China and Malaysia, Spurs and Chelsea fled the Olympic frenzy in London to ply their trade in North America, followed suit by Aston Villa (also owned by an American), Swansea and even Stoke, who tried to export their British bulldog approach across the Pond.
United went to South Africa, before flying to China and Norway and will conclude their tour with a stop in Sweden to face Barcelona, before flying over to Germany.
Clubs claim they travel to the four corners of the globe to show appreciation of their foreign fans and while training facilities in the States and Asia are undoubtedly of the highest the order, it would be extremely naive to consider tours for anything than what they are – a marketing tool to parade a brand around the world and raising its profile in the process which ultimately leads to more profits for the ‘business’.
Local fans meanwhile are forced to scrape the bottom of the (internet) barrel to try and catch a few glimpses of that new right back or wonder if that striker who always looks so promising in pre-season will deliver this year (a tip, he most likely will not), but most of them simply can’t be bothered to keep track of this carnival of matches, its even difficult to find the fixtures on some official club websites and then you do and realise their is not even a home friendly before the season starts…doh!
With the Premier League’s profile growing increasingly every year, how long will it be before we see the North London derby taking place in New York or the two Mancunian rivals battling it out in Shanghai? The NFL comes to London, as does the NBA, they have American owners, so it can’t be far away.
Richard Scudamore’s proposal of having a 39th game played outside England enraged fans, but was embraced, albeit to a lesser extent, in Italy as the three of the last four Super Cup finals were played in Beijing’s National Stadium. How long domestic fans remain undervalued for is anyone’s guess, but if you ask me things will only get worse as football truly fulfils it’s legacy of being the ultimate global game.