July 20, 2012

Any American soccer fan with the time, inclination and funds, could spend this summer watching all kinds of top European teams -- and Stoke City -- preparing for the new season. These days, if a team is not stateside, there is a good chance it is building its brand and making fans in Asia. This summer alone has seen or will see both Manchester clubs, Arsenal, Juventus, Inter Milan, Napoli and Hamburg and others in the east.

Manchester United claims it has 325 million supporters in Asia, Chelsea is said to have 44 million with Liverpool 33 million. How accurate these figures are is debatable, as is whether these are fans in the traditional soccer sense of the word,. What is not disputed is that Asia can offer massive opportunities for those that work hard and use their heads.

Not all in Asia are happy to see these behemoths of the world game arrive. There is little evidence these incursions benefit the Asian game despite the platitudes from promoters eager to justify ticket prices that are often many times higher than usual. European clubs arrive in the middle of local seasons to take attention and focus away from the domestic leagues. Liverpool cancelled a 2011 Korean game following criticism in Seoul as it would have meant the rearranging of the local league schedule but that was an exception. Usually, dissenting voices are drowned out when one of the big boys arrive.

The English were the first to begin the scramble for the Asian market. Some major clubs in Italy and Spain took time to see these tours for what they actually were -- purely promotional exercises that brought in reasonable money in the short-term but were much more important in laying foundations for the future.

While Manchester United has made the occasional misstep (such as arranging a tour in the middle of the 2007 Asian Cup), to witness its trips to Korea or China is to see a slick PR machine in action. Players are made available for interviews, kids are coached by stars, smiles are fixed on faces, banal questions are answered patiently, local leagues and players are promoted and the game itself is taken relatively seriously.

Asia can be full of pitfalls for the unwary or weary. The issue of 'face' in Asian culture is perhaps over-used, but local media and fans can be sensitive to any perceived slight, especially when it comes from westerners. Real Madrid and Barcelona have both managed to offend almost the entire nations of China and South Korea in recent years.

Madrid's trip to Beijing in 2005 did not go well. This was the time and the team of Beckham, Zidane, Raul, Figo, Ronaldo and Owen (perhaps East Asia is the one place in the world where 'Golden Boy,' as he is still called, is still a big star).

The team was criticized for showing more interest in their hotel rooms than the cultural delights on offer in the Chinese capital. "Right after their first press conference in Beijing, Real Madrid displayed a scornful and arrogant demeanor," said Xihua, the country's official news agency which slammed the constant postponing of press and public events without any word of explanation or apology. The agency wondered if the $4 million earned from the tour was worth the damage to Madrid's reputation.

Barcelona's trip to South Korea in 2010 wasn't much better. Lionel Messi said when asked about his impressions of the country: "I didn't see much. I don't know where I am and what time it is. I'm too tired." Dani Alves mentioned about playing Korea during the World Cup with Brazil, seemingly oblivious to the fact he was in South Korea and not the north.

What really rankled was the fact that the day before the game, Pep Guardiola announced matter-of-factly that Messi, always the selling point of the tour and especially so with the late vacation of the team's World Cup-winning Spanish internationals, would not play. Journalists did not appreciate that the coach's reluctance to explain the situation in a manner perhaps more suited to title decider against Real Madrid than a brand-building exhibition match in the Far East. In the end, Messi appeared for 15 minutes, but by that time, the damage had been done.

The size of both Barcelona and Madrid mitigate the damage done to an extent. Smaller clubs don't have the small margin for error, but those teams with imagination, understanding and a long-term strategy some are finding the benefits the Spanish giants did not.

Queens Park Rangers is a team that was unknown to Asian fans this time last year as it returned to the Premier League after a gap of 16 years. Now, it is one of the most talked about clubs on the continent. Chairman Tony Fernando is also owner of Air Asia and is using his airline, experience and knowledge of the region to build the QPR brand. His sudden signing of Park Ji-sung, perhaps the continent's best-known player, earlier this month was part of the strategy. The club's tour of south-east Asia is going well.

QPR will be back. Next summer, with no pesky international tournaments getting in the way, a record number of Europeans are expected on the giant continent. Already there is talk of a Manchester United and Chelsea clash in Bangkok. The scramble for Asia is not going to stop anytime soon.

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