You know the feeling. Stepping off a flight into a mysterious land for the first time, the rush of exotic heat knocking you backwards as you descend into arrivals. Be it Benidorm or Brazil, Mallorca or Mauritius, upon first placing a tentative foot on foreign soil thoughts quickly turn to just one thing: sleep. You are knackered, you’ve spent all day travelling. Rest is in order.
Though we can feel little sympathy for the luxurious lavishness of a footballer’s lifestyle, there is one area where the common man may well have the advantage. When a player disembarks his seat – first class, no doubt – after a long hard slog to the other side of the world, a barrage of duties await. From the minute the photographers in arrivals clamber for shots to the moment the screeching rubber of the plane’s wheels give flight, a footballer is obliged to partake in the the whirlwind PR machine that is doing more harm than good: the pre-season tour.
Touring English teams have long been an attraction across the globe. Amateur side Corinthian FC drew sizable masses to their games on a missionary tour of Brazil in 1910, whilst around 10,000 witnessed Exeter City’s visit to the same country as opponents in the national side’s first ever match in 1914. Yet these adventures held a noble purpose. As creators of the game, we were taking it out into the world, spreading the football gospel to unconverted corners. Today’s tours are more akin to mercenary missions, exploiting these lands for all their riches and then doing a runner into the sunset.
Between Manchester United and Arsenal alone total travel for pre-season clock in at just under 40,000 miles combined. The Proclaimers would have to go through 80,000 renditions of their most famous hit just to match these exploits, and nobody wants that. Darting from South Africa to China and then to Northern Europe, Manchester United are aiming take advantage of latest figures which estimate that nearly a sixth of the world’s population consider themselves supporters. Arsenal, meanwhile, also head out East to China and Malaysia, whilst their cancelled tour of Nigeria would have taken their outreach even further. It begs the question: is there any footballing value to these tours?
Arsene Wenger is a sensible man. A man led by reason. Yet even he is powerless in resisting the desire of Premier League clubs prioritise maximised revenue streams over footballing benefit. Wenger has a new talent to blend, new systems to perfect and narrowing corridor of time in which to prepare. If Arsenal are to finally achieve this season, preparation is vital. Are games against Kitchee FC and a Malaysia XI adequate fore bearers for a clash with Sunderland less than a month later? With all due respect to these sides, Arsenal are using them as nothing more than a medium of exploitation, giving an air of purpose to what is nothing more than a money making exercise.
Manchester City, naturally, are leading the charge for global recognition this pre-season. They too will be heading East. Their experiences in America last season, as well as early indications in this pre-season indicate a stinging lack of interest from players. Mario Balotelli’s ludicrous attempt at a back heel when clean through on goal against LA Galaxy last year testified to the forthright apathy of which players approach these fixtures; a jovial exercise in indifference. Roberto Mancini rightly pulled the Italian off, but Balotelli had already signified wider attitude trend. City’s 1-0 reverse to Al Hilal only reinforced this, as a strong City side appeared lethargic and ultimately uninterested in the task placed in front of them, like a child bundling their way through homework to get their sweets at the end.
Though pre-season games rarely stretch beyond leisurely run-outs, sensibly arranged friendlies against competitive opposition on home soil provide the greatest prospects of tangible rewards on the pitch. Though PSG meet Barcelona in New York and Arsenal meet Manchester City in Beijing, the chosen locations suggest the games will not stretch beyond exhibitionism. Indeed, when Premier League teams have met in pre-season in far flung lands previously, games have often amounted to nothing more than a tedious wait for the clock to run down so both clubs can collect their pay packets.
We live in a world where Stoke and Swansea City are promoting their ‘brand’ in the home of fat-cat capitalism. Both head to America in the hope that some poor sod will be packing their bags in preparation for a trip to Hanley or the Mumbles on a dour winter’s eve come the resumption of the Premier League season. Unlikely, yet such is the way of football nowadays. Someone in Baltimore is just as likely to follow Stoke as someone in Burslem.
It is highly unlikely that players take any benefit from these ventures. Jetlag, alien climates and relentless media duties must take their toll. No human being, no matter how physically pristine, can hop between time zones so frequently without feeling the effects. There is every chance it leaves players with greater levels of fatigue that when they first set off.
Clubs have every right to enhance their income wherever possible, but a line must be drawn whereby football must come first. The integrity of the game is compromised each time a club pockets millions of pounds from a meaningless friendly, against a club most likely used shamelessly as a pawn on the Premier League’s rigged chessboard.
Can you see any footballing reason behind these pre-season tours? Tweet me @acherrie1