x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Premier League: All the world is their stage to explore

Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal all say it is all about the fans as they set off on pre-season money-spinning trips, writes Richard Jolly.

Manchester United football fans hold posters as the team in Thailand.
Manchester United football fans hold posters as the team in Thailand.

A few years ago, the Premier League had to abandon controversial plans for each club to play a match a season abroad. The 39th game proved a step too far, not just for the traditionalists, but for the majority.

But now it is not about the 39th game as the first. Manuel Pellegrini's reign at Manchester City begins in South Africa and the first action of David Moyes' and Jose Mourinho's time in charge of Manchester United and Chelsea respectively will be in Thailand.

Arsenal's season starts in Indonesia, Stoke's in the United States. Many a debut will come in a far-flung location, many an era commences with an unfamiliar backdrop.

Liverpool kick off comparatively close to home, 26 miles away at Preston, where they celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of their former manager Bill Shankly.

Then, however, they show how much things have changed since Shankly's time by heading for Indonesia, Australia and Thailand. As is often the case, they will also manage a stop in Scandinavia.

The globe-trotting is not just sanctioned but endorsed by the league. The Barclays Asia Trophy, contested every two years, features Manchester City, Sunderland and Tottenham. The 2013 version will be played in China.

"The Premier League is worldwide, it's unbelievable, and to be going over to Hong Kong and to see how many fans really do watch the Premier League, it'll be great for them to see hands-on," said the Tottenham Hotspur defender Michael Dawson.

It is a mantra every club repeats: it is about the fans.

"We've been to America, Asia and now we want to go to Australia to meet the fans and give them the opportunity to get a bit closer," said the Liverpool midfielder Lucas Leiva.

Vincent Kompany, the Manchester City captain, said: "It's also good for the team to visit Africa as we know how big the fan base is there. The fans might not all live in Manchester, but they probably feel the same as anyone living there about this club, so that is a great thing."

Yet if it is about serving the public, it is also about boosting the bank balance. In the global dash for cash, the bigger the club, the further they travel. Manchester United claim to have 659 million fans. They are attempting to visit as many as possible on a 24,000-mile epic journey that takes them to Thailand, Australia, Japan, Hong Kong and Sweden. They are running out of new frontiers to conquer.

"The tours are great for us in many ways because we get to see new things, do new things and experience different cultures," said defender Jonny Evans.

Kompany, who has an interest in politics, said: "I'm excited about the trip to South Africa. Symbolically it's a big thing for me as Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes."

Travel may broaden the mind and can enable many to realise ambitions, but does it actually prepare a footballer for the forthcoming season? Besides the jet lag, the heat and humidity do not exactly replicate conditions in northern England. The pitches, certainly, can be different. Liverpool are set to play at the MCG in Melbourne, one of cricket's great venues, 12 months after lining up at the Boston Red Sox's historic home. "On the last tour we played at Fenway Park," Lucas said. "It was really nice and a stadium that plays another sport."

Yet impressive as the surroundings can be, the standard of the opponents can drop. Sometimes games are sufficiently easy it is hard to see what clubs actually gain. And yet those who can are all long-haul travellers.

Arsenal were the last to cave in.

"I am under pressure to do it [a pre-season tour]," admitted Arsene Wenger in 2010. The Frenchman preferred a low-key build-up with a training camp in the Austrian Alps. Now, for the third successive year, the Gunners are off to East Asia.

It is there, players testify, that fans are at their most fervent.

"First we go to Asia and I know it's going to be like nothing else," said the Chelsea centre-back Gary Cahill. "I've not been out there yet but people tell me that Chelsea are really popular. It's incredible that so many people not only take an interest in the Premier League but also Chelsea as a club."

They are still more fanatical when their compatriots are involved. United will field the Japan international Shinji Kagawa in his homeland, just as, in the past, they took Park Ji-sung back to his native South Korea.

"Whenever we go to Korea it's incredible," Evans said. "I remember we were playing a game there and Ji was sat on the bench and every time the camera went on him the noise inside the stadium was just unbelievable."

South-east and East Asia is where interest is at its highest and fans at their most numerous. Indonesia claims to have more Liverpool supporters than any other country; the club have also launched a website in Thailand to prepare for their visit. Yet there is a sense the attention can be suffocating.

Evans's favourite pre-season tours were to the United States: Washington, New York, Chicago and Seattle all made an impact on the Northern Irishman. Is it a coincidence, however, that it is a country he can visit without being mobbed?

Fast as football is growing in the United States and lucrative as the American market is, it is still a less pressurised environment.

Without the same worldwide fan base or commensurate commercial interests, Moyes used to take Everton across the Atlantic every summer.

At United, the imperatives are different. They are so profitable they can charge fans in Sydney A$15 (Dh50) just to watch them train.

For the clubs who envy the defending champions and their army of fans, the aim is to emulate them. Hence the sight of English clubs scattered across Asia, Africa, Australia and America over the next month while some - generally with the fewest fans outside British shores - spend rather more time in the United Kingdom.

That is not something the elite clubs like doing. A reason why many oppose the winter break various England managers have campaigned for is that it might not be about rest and recuperation as much as a window for more money-spinning jaunts.

Instead, clubs have found another way to spread the gospel and increase their revenue. No sooner had the last campaign ended than Chelsea and Manchester City embarked on post-season tours.

Liverpool, too, tried to. When there are no competitive fixtures scheduled, the world, it seems, is their oyster.

sports@thenational.ae