Malaysia, China, Indonesia, Japan; Premier League clubs are touring the Far East with an increasing regularity. Arsenal are currently in the middle of a tour that has seen them play against a Malaysia 11, and will pit them against Kitchee FC in Hong Kong and Manchester City in an exhibition match in Beijing. Both Manchester clubs are also on tours to the surrounding area.
The benefits of these tours are obvious, but they’re also obviously financial. Every club recognises that if they want to compete on the field they also need to compete off it. Basically, that means doing whatever your competitors do. So, if Man Utd build up a following in the Far East then Arsenal, City and the rest have to do so too.
In terms of merchandise, the markets in the UK are already saturated. Every football fan in this country is already spending vast sums of money on their club through shirt sales and ever-increasing ticket prices, but we only make up a fraction of the fan base of our clubs.
The potential for the growth of supporters abroad is almost limitless. It is an opportunity that cannot be missed. But is it actually beneficial at all in footballing terms?
Teams currently on tours to the US face a similar problem in terms of the quality of opposition their facing, although it could be possible to play another European team out there like Chelsea and PSG did. Can mangers really claim that these matches are preparing their team well for the current season? Is facing a Malaysia 11 or a Hong Kong 11or a Shanghai Shenhua side with no Drogba or Anelka really productive preparation for a season of football in the Premier and Champions League?
At least the teams in America have the luxury of being largely anonymous. They might receive a small amount of attention but they won’t be hounded everywhere they go as they would in parts of Asia.
Chelsea’s team were photographed training in Central Park, it would be near enough impossible to do that in Beijing or Kuala Lumpur. That too is an issue. A pre-season tour should be a relaxing affair where the players are free from the press and the distractions in England, free to focus on the season ahead and how they will perform as a team. How are these teams supposed to focus when they are constantly being paraded in public, singing shirts and photos from the moment they step off the plane to the moment they leave.
Rather than being a relaxing but concentrated training programme for the season ahead it seems like an exhausting PR exercise with some matches thrown in as an afterthought. Yes, these tours do not make up the entirety of the clubs’ pre-seasons but it is an unwelcome distraction nonetheless.
The players say they enjoy it, and I’m sure they do. Who wouldn’t want a holiday abroad with your friends? But that’s not the point. Pre season shouldn’t be enjoyable. It should be a gruelling physical challenge as players force themselves back in to fitness and the mentality needed for 10 months of solid competition.
Until last year teams like Arsenal had never ever been on such tours. The furthest Wenger ever took them was Austria, he always slated the prospect of travelling so far. There must have been a reason for that.
Like I said, once one English team starts to go on these tours, everyone has to. It is not just the Champions League clubs that do these tours either; as well as Chelsea teams like Spurs, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Stoke are also on tours in America too. As productive as it was for Stoke getting beaten 2-1 by Columbus Crew on their tour you can’t help but wonder what they’re hoping to get out of all this?
Building these relationships abroad is important, but fans aren’t going to decide to support your club just because you came on a tour. It might sound shallow but by-and-large foreign fans will support the teams that are successful. Therefore, wouldn’t everyone be far better off by ensuring that a meticulous, strenuous pre-season was carried out elsewhere – free from media hassle and against good opposition.
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