The year has seen another summer of love for the big European sides from their adoring East Asian fan bases. From Tokyo to Shanghai and Seoul to Singapore, the long-held fascination with the glamorous clubs from the other side of the planet has again been on show, and fans have flocked in numbers for an opportunity to see the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Harry Kane and Antoine Griezmann.
Barcelona, Juventus, Spurs, Chelsea, Manchester City and Wolves are among the clubs that this year made the journey from west to east. There have long been arguments and counter-arguments regarding the purpose and value of tours from Europe to East Asia but they have become routine, particularly as a result of sponsorship and ownership links as well as the International Champions Cup (ICC), with its scattered locations and convoluted format.
It seems clear that the clubs gain from the experience through financial incentives and exposure to a growing market and fan base. But what do the hosts gain from the tours apart from the chance to see their heroes in the flesh? In what is a truly global sport, it is understandable that football fans should be excited about seeing some of the world’s top players on their doorstep. However, do Asian fans receive the respect they deserve and is there a positive impact on the local game?
For many, the tours are all about milking the Asian cash cow, ensuring that TV rights maintain value, merchandise continues to be bought and that their own club establishes or maintains a high profile in an increasingly competitive environment.
Clubs might claim it is a reward for the loyalty of their fans on the other side of the world and an important opportunity to express gratitude. In reality, it is a complex combination of factors, but a recurring theme is that the clubs can do more to express their gratitude to the locals. Visits often come across as a patronising ruffle of the hair for a distant relative who you know exists but in whom you have no genuine interest.
English clubs arrive in Asia with their own social media team and they are followed by the English press pack, which quickly forms a visible clique within the press room. While many Asian journalists hope to grab a few minutes with the superstars, they often find themselves left out in the cold, with privileges more likely to be granted to the familiar faces from home.
It can be the same story in the Mixed Zone, with the players stopping for a chat with the writers they know and interact with regularly throughout the year while ignoring the local press who are desperate for the opportunity. Surely the focus should be much more on charming the locals than keeping the English red tops happy.
It should be added that many Asian journalists don’t do themselves any favours by treating the Mixed Zone as a fan zone and apparently being more interested in jostling for selfies with the stars than interesting copy. But perhaps if there was a more methodical approach to interactions with local media, there wouldn’t be this unsightly scrum.
A two-hour Meet the Press event at which every player makes himself available for a chat and a picture would surely help build bridges and reduce the desperate congestion in the mixed zone for those who want a picture more than anything.
It is understandable that players sometimes don’t wish to talk to the media after a particularly disappointing result or performance but there is no reason why they should not be more generous with their time when the result doesn’t really matter. There is absolutely no excuse for walking through the Mixed Zone and not stopping several times – but many won’t even stop once. The arrogance can be staggering.
This year, fans in South Korea were furious at the behaviour of Ronaldo, who failed to make himself available for an autograph signing, gave no interviews and simply stared out the reporters in the Mixed Zone after failing to make an appearance from the bench in Juventus’ match against a K-League All-Star team.
For a player whose image consultants carefully manage photo opportunities to present him as a fan-friendly family man, this was an unusual slip of the mask with Asia watching. There will certainly be fewer Ronaldo fanboys in Korea today than there were before his petulant performance.
It hadn’t helped that Juventus had appeared to treat the Korean trip with contempt by arriving at the stadium late, delaying kick-off by an hour.
Ryan Walters, the head of English content for KLeague.com, was at the World Cup Stadium in Seoul and watched as the crowd turned against the Portuguese superstar: “Ronaldo was given deafening cheers to start the game, but they quickly turned to boos in the second half as the minutes wore on,” said Walters. “Fans then tried to coax him onto the field by chanting his name, and when even that proved fruitless they started chanting ‘Messi, Messi, Messi’.”
Nevertheless, Walters believes that the local fondness for the biggest clubs in Europe will not prevent fans from turning out in numbers the next time big-name visitors arrive: “There is an obsession with all things European football here and the idol culture that comes with it that permeates nearly every subsect of football fandom,” he said. “I think Juventus failed in their mission to grow an already strong brand by angering Korean fans, but that would do very little to stop the Liverpool, Barcelona and especially Tottenham fans from showing up en masse for such an occasion in the future.”
There are now reports that Korean fans will sue Festa, the sports agency that organised the match, over Ronaldo’s failure to play.
Ronaldo is not the only player whose behaviour has created a storm. Two years ago, Chelsea wing-back Kenedy was sent home from the club’s Asian tour after making social media posts that appeared to be mocking China and its people and prompted outrage.
This year, Manchester City were accused of “utter disrespect” for their attitude in China in a piece by Jonathan Dixon of Xinhuanet.com. The article berated the club for the way in which it treated local fans and media, claiming there was actual segregation of foreign and Chinese media at a Puma commercial event in Shanghai.
Of course, there are also positive stories to be told and Dixon praised Wolves, West Ham and Newcastle’s engagements in China.
But clubs are too often seen to be going through the motions of fulfilling contractual obligations rather than taking an opportunity to strengthen bonds. There is an underlying sense that all of the issues reflect a condescending attitude from the clubs towards East Asia – one shared by a media that usually slams top players as unambitious for moving to the continent.
As these tours are becoming increasingly common, they are surely increasingly unnecessary. In Japan, the domestic league is in decent health and boasts a strong fan culture as supporters follow their clubs the length of a large country. Vissel Kobe have recently taken to recruiting ageing superstars, with World Cup winners David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Lukas Podolski recently joined by Belgium international defender, Thomas Vermaelen.
Japanese fans do welcome the opportunity to watch the big names but not everyone is happy. Alan Gibson, the editor of J.League Soccer magazine, believes that there while there are plenty of starry-eyed fans who relish the chance to get a glimpse of the world’s best, the games often fall flat due the absence of big names and the fact that they are simply not competitive.
“Many Japanese are happy to see these ‘big’ teams visit, although when they send a team without the obvious stars it’s a huge letdown in the end for the actual local fans of those teams,” said Gibson. “Barcelona without Messi, Suárez, Coutinho and more? Not really anything more than a glorified money-making exercise while getting fit.
“What I saw first-hand at Vissel-Barcelona was that 95 percent of the attendees were there to see a big team and damn the expense. The atmosphere was like a funeral, with no away fans to create any kind of atmosphere and no real home fans because they’re either priced out of it, or because of the reserved seating, they cannot sit together, so there is no singing and chanting.”
Gibson was also unimpressed by the limited amount of interactions between players and fans when so much more could have been done: “From what I could see, the bare minimum is done by these teams,” he said. “They skip through back doors of hotels, run past waiting fans from their buses. A player or three actually spending 20-30 minutes signing for fans – as opposed to seeing a photo opportunity and doing it for the cameras – is very rare.”
Southeast Asia has long held a fascination for Premier League clubs and visits and showpiece matches were once common. However, a poor turnout for Liverpool’s match in Thailand in 2015 was a sign that fatigue was beginning to set in. In the same year, Malaysia’s ultras launched a campaign to boycott matches against Liverpool and Spurs. There was disruption to the domestic schedule and the supporters’ group’s statement pointed the finger at greed and ego for the organisation of what they called “circus games”.
A statement on their website said: “Don’t buy the tickets, don’t go to the stadium. The matches are simply held to make FAM (Football Association of Malaysia), the organisers and their cronies rich, so don’t let FAM and the organisers profit from this sort of nonsense.”
Domestic leagues in East Asia run over the summer months when clubs from Europe are preparing for the new season and fans are increasingly resistant to seeing their fixtures rearranged in order to accommodate whatever European giant wishes to grace them with their presence.
Singapore remains a host of ICC matches but this country has seen its domestic league reduced to almost irrelevance. Reverence for the giants of European football is in stark contrast with the general indifference towards the S.League. It remains to be seen if positive fan experiences in a sellout Manchester United against Inter clash can be translated into support for Tampines Rovers against Hougang United.
Ultimately, as long as there is a demand, the tours will continue. But perhaps there will be a time when fans simply refuse to go along with the programme. Japan and South Korea have had their own superstars for a long time. Most of them still end up in Europe, but what if the balance of power were to one day shift towards the east?
Imagine clubs from the region touring England, giving special access to media from their own countries, while their superstar players routinely ignore journalists from the likes of The Mirror and The Times. They would be rightly criticised, but this is what is common among the European clubs.
East Asia’s importance in world football is growing and Europe’s powerhouses want a piece of the action. If these tours really are important to the clubs, then surely it is time they gave more thought to giving the hosting countries, their fans and media due respect.
By Paul Murphy @PaulmurphyBKK