x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

If at first you don't succeed...

The Premier League didn't achieve world domination by giving up at the first hint of resistance and its second attempt at selling the '39th game' went much better.

The possibility of seeing Liverpool's Steven Gerrard, left, and Chelsea's Frank Lampard playing in a Premier League game in Asia could be nearer to reality than first thought.
The possibility of seeing Liverpool's Steven Gerrard, left, and Chelsea's Frank Lampard playing in a Premier League game in Asia could be nearer to reality than first thought.

The English Premier League didn't achieve world domination by giving up at the first hint of resistance and last Friday, its second attempt at selling the '39th game' went much better. Ten months after the idea was originally mooted and shot down, and after much behind the scenes bridge-building and deal-making, the president of the Asian Football Confederation, Mohamed bin Hammam, and Richard Scudamore, the chief of the English competition, said in Tokyo that the idea of holding an extra round of games overseas was far from dead in the water.

When the news broke first time round, it met with anger and ridicule in the English media and less than positive responses abroad. This was especially true in Asia, the continent that draws the most admiring glances for the UK giants eager for new markets. At the time, bin Hammam was cool on the idea as were associations in potential host countries Japan, South Korea, China and Australia. Governing bodies further west were more positive, including the UAE FA.

"It would be advantageous for the UAE and it would be advantageous for the Premier League," said a spokesman at the time. Bin Hamman is coming round to the same way of thinking, putting his earlier reaction down to 'miscommunication'. "We wondered if they were just going to collect money and go," said the Qatari. "I will be very positive to this initiative if it arrives in the future now we know there will be benefits for Asia. It wasn't just an invasion."

What kind of benefits there will be remain to be seen, some were mentioned, others perhaps not. Bin Hammam has his critics but he is a shrewd operator. He is however, being a little naïve when he talks of preventing an invasion. It has already happened, as Scudamore pointed out: "It's not new. We have been here for a number of years working on various projects. Clubs have been coming to Asia for a long time." In India alone, Arsenal, Everton, Manchester United and Tottenham have visited over the last three months in a bid to grab a piece of what is expected to become a huge market.

On Tuesday, the United manager Sir Alex Ferguson reiterated his opposition to the plan: "I don't think there will ever be a 39th game and I am not in favour of it." He added that an already overcrowded fixture list would not be able to accommodate the game: "You look at our domestic programme, it is impossible." The difference if the new partnership goes ahead is that English clubs would be part of a co-ordinated campaign. The strategic objectives would be cities such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, Mumbai, Johannesburg and New York.

It is easy to understand the appeal of Manchester United in Dubai or Manchester City in Abu Dhabi but concerns about the impact it may have on local Asian leagues are also understandable - not least in UAE's professional league. Attracting fans to watch domestic matches is hard enough without English giants arriving in the Gulf to play a competitive match and indulge in major charm offensives. With that in mind perhaps, Scudamore has a carrot for Asian clubs.

He announced a scheme that will twin Premier League clubs with counterparts in the new-look Asian Champions League that will be relaunched in 2009 with the number of clubs increased from 28 to 32. "This exchange will take place at an administrative level, with administrators of clubs, at a technical level in terms of coaching and it will take place club-to-club through twinning and any organisational meetings with the clubs in any format we will be happy to attend," said Scudamore.

Sounds interesting but it is all a little vague at the moment. Before Asia goes running into the tempting English embrace, serious questions need to be asked. jduerden@thenational.ae