Asian tours the new football evangelism

With Manchester United back doing duty at Old Trafford, we look back at their ill-fated trip to Asia and consider why Premier League teams are visiting the continent…

If it was an old-fashioned friendly match Manchester United and Manchester City wanted last week to give their players a proper workout ahead of the new season they would have arranged one at Old Trafford or the Etihad. Instead, the bitter city rivals travelled thousands of miles to China, all for just 90 minutes of football.

As if to show their disapproval of such an arrangement, the weather gods intervened. Torrential rains rendered the Bird’s Nest pitch unplayable causing the match to be cancelled.

How the organizers wished they could legislate the weather. Spare a thought for the thousands of Chinese fans who were looking forward to watching their heroes in action up close.

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There is no doubt City and United relished an early opportunity to size each other up and put down a marker ahead of the new season. However, in the grand scheme of things they would also not have been overly disappointed when the match was called off.

While the cancellation hit the sponsors in the pockets, for the clubs the tour was not a wholly wasted exercise. In truth, the aborted friendly kick-about was a subservient component of a commercial package.

Pre-season excursions to Asia by Premier League and other European clubs are en vogue. Glib dismissal of this growing trend as useless, a complete and utter waste of time reveals an inadequate appreciation of how the game of football has evolved over the years.

The tours are less about the actual action on the pitch and more about clubs exporting the game to non-traditional football territories and exposing their brands to new markets. The tours are a form of proselytizing in emerging football markets as clubs scour for new converts to grow their support bases.

Asia, populous and with a buoyant economy, represents one of the game’s major growth areas. It is the new frontier, home to fans with disposable income to spend on football merchandise. Europe’s elite clubs are determined to penetrate this market with a view to monitizing their growing popularity in the region and adding a lucrative revenue stream to their business.

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What we are witnessing is a scramble for Asia by clubs looking to unlock new markets for their merchandise. Strategies for establishing a foothold in this coveted region include efforts to make local fans feel valued as members of their club’s global family. The best way to do this is to take football matches to them. Call it football evangelism if you will.

The modern day football manager and player have also embraced their changing roles. Tour itineraries strike a balance between players putting in the hard yards in training in readiness for the new season, on the one hand, and fulfilling their commercial obligations off the pitch, on the other. The tour schedules are often gruelling but players appreciate their value and how they help to fund their celebrity lifestyles.

A recurring lament by indignant fans is that football has been prostituted to commercial interests and that the beautiful game is now completely divested of its soul. Well, the purists may not be enamored with the direction football is going, but they will just have to make peace with it. Football must continue to reinvent itself and search for new ways to pay the bills.

Lashias Ncube

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