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NEW YORK—Alan Birchenall entered the Dream Hotel in the TriBeCa neighborhood on Tuesday morning and gazed upon the signage announcing the participants in the 2016 International Champions Cup. He saw the usual suspects: Real Madrid, Barcelona, Paris Saint-Germain, and more traditional giants of European soccer.
Then he saw the fox-adorned badge of his employer, surprise EPL leaders Leicester City, perhaps the most unlikely success story in all of sports right now. Birchenall enjoyed a lengthy playing career with Leicester in the 70’s and has served as the club’s ambassador since 2000. Now he stood on a stage alongside club dignitaries like Youri Djorkaeff (PSG), Marco Materazzi (Inter Milan), Giovane Élber (Bayern Munich), Gary McAllister (Liverpool), and Edgar Davids (Barcelona).
“All those World Cups and goals up there, and then you get ‘The Birch’ at the bottom!,” Birchenall exclaimed to SI.com after the announcement. “Just by being out here at this tournament… it speaks volumes, doesn’t it?”
The ICC is not a prestigious competition. Taking place in the European preseason, it is essentially a series of low-stakes exhibition matches (albeit with some prize money involved). Often, the club’s marquee players don’t play much, or are absent altogether.
Still, from a marketing perspective, the ICC is a dream. Here, in developing soccer markets like the U.S., fans can see Europe’s best clubs they follow from afar, playing each other, right in front of them. The use of reserve players in these matches is almost beside the point. It’s an exercise in branding. To be in the ICC is to be a “big club.”
Leicester’s involvement in this year’s edition, then, can be considered the first concrete result gleaned from a yearlong period of small successes. It’s not a trophy on the field, but it might as well be one off of it.
“Whatever happens between now and the end of the season, we’ve made a mark,” Birchinall said. “Otherwise, we would not be here, invited to be in this tournament.”
But while the ICC represents the first concrete display of worldwide legitimacy for Leicester, other clubs are looking at it in different ways. Former Chelsea right back Paulo Ferreira, here as an ambassador for the club, said that for tournaments like this, Chelsea will do “the normal preparation. The only thing that changes is the country.”
Liverpool, on the other hand, will be looking to break out of its comfort zone. Similar to the club’s last appearance in the ICC, Liverpool will arrive in the U.S. in the midst of its first preseason with a new manager. This is the time when, physically, the team can be molded into the unit that Jurgen Klopp will demand after finishing his first partial season in charge.
“It’s when the stamina work is done,” club ambassador and former Liverpool midfielder Gary McAllister told SI.com. “Jurgen Klopp’s style, it’s high pressing, it’s high intensity, so this is the perfect time in the preseason to put the stamina into the body. It’s an important time for the club.”
Others, like Barcelona ambassador Edgar Davids, saw the trip to the U.S. as an opportunity for some players to take notes on professionalism.
“You see the NFL, the NBA, baseball…it’s the highest level of those sports,” Davids told SI.com. “I think that culture really inspires and really influences top players.”
Birchenall, and Leicester City, will hope that a similar sort of learning by association happens this summer.