It was barely a surprise when it was announced that Manchester City would be playing most of their pre-season friendlies in China this summer. After all, Asia is a lucrative market for Premier League clubs to tap into; to such an extent that the continent has become a battleground in recent years to win the populace’s hearts, minds and wallets.
In February Sichuan Jiuniu FC became the seventh club to become a part of the City Football Group, with City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano saying: “China is an extremely important football market, which we have been focused on for some time.”
It was barely a surprise too because, given the global reach the Premier League has these days, it has become commonplace to send our household names far and wide immediately prior to another gruelling domestic campaign. On this City do not deserve any special attention because plenty of clubs do it but staying with the Blues the last occasion they played a non-competitive fixture in Britain was against St Johnstone in the summer of 2016.
In the last two years David Silva and company have paraded their talents in the US and before that there was an inaugural trip to China, that time in relation to a £265m investment equating to a 13% stake in the City Football Group by a Chinese consortium. The pre-season before that saw the squad head to Australia (Manchester United’s choice of destination this summer) and Vietnam.
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For Manchester City fans based in the UK it can be galling – not to mention exceedingly frustrating – to have to rejig their lives in order to catch their team play after an extended absence. Last year, and the year before, it necessitated getting up at 4am. This time two of the games took place during midweek at lunchtime, with the latter of these two only available to watch via the club’s new streaming platform.
Balancing this out is the fact that the modern football supporter ‘gets it’. They know this is the game now. Furthermore, from the more magnanimous there is acknowledgement that locally based fans have the facility to see their team week in, week out and the inescapable truth is that City no longer belongs to east Manchester. It belongs to the world.
Even so, it’s tempting to think that City have missed a trick this summer and especially with the benefit of hindsight. Last month an editorial published by China’s state-run news agency cited the travelling party’s ‘attitude of arrogance’ and was damningly headlined: ‘Chinese fans’ love for Man City goes unreciprocated on home soil’. The accusation was swiftly rebuked by Pep Guardiola but the PR damage was already done and it could be said that the club’s attempts to win the country’s hearts, minds and wallets had all been in vain.
Now imagine if instead of journeying thousands of miles away –with the incalculable organisation required – City had played Bury at Gigg Lane. Their neighbour is currently experiencing financial turmoil that is threatening their very existence and they could surely have done with the fillip of a full house. The same can be said of Bolton Wanderers, another North West mainstay in serious trouble.
Agreeing to such fixtures would have been win-win with another win thrown in. For the City players there would have been no uprooting or tiring jetlag. For local kids, who may usually be unable to afford or attend matches at the Etihad it would present a chance to see their heroes. From a PR perspective, meanwhile, it’s gold-dust. There’s the much maligned City helping out their neighbours and showing they haven’t forgotten where they have come from.
It’s fine to promote your brand across the world. It makes perfect sense to do so. But perhaps some parity is needed when it comes to scheduling Premier League clubs’ pre-season games. And a reminder too that love begins at home.