Sam Wallace: Premier League's voyages of plunder reveal rationale behind 39th game
Big clubs make lots of money from overseas tours, cash unavailable to Wigan, Hull or Stoke
Monday 27 April 2009
Hats off to Dato Worawi Makudi, president of the Thailand football association, for the most grandiose quote of last week: "Liverpool's return to the kingdom is long overdue." He sounded a bit like the narrator from the Lord of the Rings even if he was just talking about Liverpool's summer tour which includes a game in Thailand. But it did raise some important points.
The first being that the last group of people to clad themselves in red from head to foot and go out in public in Bangkok ended up being shot at by the Thai army. The second being that the fact Liverpool can swan into a country gripped by political crisis demonstrates that, when it comes to the business of making money, English football clubs do not let a bit of local strife get in the way. The lucrative pre-season tours are just months away and who cares if there are riots on the streets?
Liverpool are by no means the only club on the make – although let's hope someone alerts the Thai army beforehand that if they do decide to wear the home kit that it is not a pro-Thaksin Shinawatra UDD party protest. Manchester United are off to Asia too, a quick swing round Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia and China, announced as breezily as if they were touring the Home Counties.
Manchester City are visiting South Africa, doubtless a Garry Cook-inspired jaunt based on the eternal optimism of the marketing man that someone, somewhere in that vast country will know that there are actually two clubs in Manchester. Good luck with that. Chelsea are off to Seattle, Pasadena, Baltimore and Arlington (in Texas) and then possibly China for the Premier League Asian Trophy. They will need a holiday to recover.
The mania for summer tours has reached a feverish pitch in English football. This psychotic belief in clubs' marketing departments that if they do not immediately convert the entire population of Busan into football fans then they, and their disposable income, will be lost forever to the NHL or the NBA. Only Arsenal stand alone – and good on them for returning once again to Arsène Wenger's bootcamp in Bad Waltersdorf, Austria, for morning runs in the mountains.
But let's not kid ourselves: as soon as Wenger calls it a day at Arsenal that team and its new manager will be flogged around Asia or America every summer to "boost brand awareness" and "grow the business". So if we have to accept that clubs are going to rinse this new market of happy-clappy, unquestioning, official merchandise-hungry fans for all they are worth, what's the problem?
The problem is that not every club in the Premier League steps on a plane every summer and cashes in. It was in part for that reason that 13 months ago Richard Scudamore first presented to the 20 clubs of the league his blueprint for the 39th game, an extra Premier League fixture played abroad. And as a result, for a couple of months, Scudamore enjoyed the same status as Sir Fred Goodwin does now. He was a public pariah set on destroying the national game.
Yet for all the wrong-headedness of that plan, for all its woeful under-estimation of the gut feeling of revulsion it would provoke in the average English football fan, there was a seed of common sense to it. The common sense said that the big clubs are now making more and more money from their summer tours. It is a source of revenue that is simply not available to the likes of Wigan, Hull and Stoke who are not capable of drawing a crowd in Seoul or California.
The global appeal of the Premier League deserves to be shared by all 20 of its members. Cristiano Ronaldo still requires the likes of Fulham or Middlesbrough to play against. The shocks and upsets are part of what makes the league so absorbing, even to those paying customers eight time zones away who have no concept of where or what Wearside is or how cold it can get at the Reebok Stadium.
What Scudamore was trying to do, however clumsily, was take that global appeal and make sure everyone got a slice of it. No-one would flock to watch Blackburn Rovers in New York, but they would if they were playing Manchester United. There would be public horror if the top Premier League clubs decided to negotiate their television deals separately but that is what clubs do when it comes to their pre-season tours and the disparity in income just widens the gulf between the rich and the rest.
A quick, unscientific survey of a few smaller Premier League clubs last week discovered the following. No big Asia tour for Hull City, instead they are off for pre-season training in Italy with no friendlies planned over there. Wigan Athletic are off to Austria again. They got a crowd of about 1,400 there last summer for a friendly against Hannover 96 although that was, a club official admitted, largely down to the local appeal of Paul Scharner than an outbreak of Latics-fever in Carinthia.
Stoke City are also off to Austria for two friendlies but they also do not expect to be met by cheering crowds at the airport in Styria. Fulham were pretty proud of the 16,000 crowds they drew when they played in South Korea last summer. Portsmouth played Manchester United in Nigeria last summer but will not be going back. They will probably go back to their usual pre-season in Devon.
Don't believe the PR guff from the big clubs about summer tours allowing them to fulfil their duty to their fans overseas: they would not do it if there was no money in it for them. But now, more than ever, the Premier League needs to make sure that its less wealthy members get a fair share of the revenue generated by the dream that is beamed around the world. Next time Scudamore talks about the overseas fixture, if he ever does again, he needs a more rational hearing.
Surprise! It's a wild night on the sofa
Get on YouTube for a weird video of Park Ji-Sung's surprise birthday party, attended only by Patrice Evra, Carlos Tevez and a Korean television crew. Evra appears to be the only one there who can speak English. Tevez speaks only in Spanish and Park only in Korean apart from when he says "Oh my God" when Evra brings in the football pitch-design cake.
There is an accident with an industrial-sized party-popper going off in Park's face that appears to injure his top lip. Then the trio sit on a small beige sofa in Park's front room that is too small to accommodate them all comfortably.
If that counts as a wild night out for Manchester United players these days then Sir Alex Ferguson can sleep easy.
Fifa have designs on the yoof market
I wouldn't claim to know the mind of the average fashion-conscious teenager but it is sincerely hoped that they won't want anything to do with Fifa's latest crackpot idea: producing a – ahem – "trendy" Fifa-branded clothing line aimed at the youth market. Hey kids, wear the logo favoured by unaccountable Swiss bureaucrats with corruption allegations – albeit denied – hanging over them for that "edgy" Zurich gravy-train look.
A tangled Webb of hypocrisy
Howard Webb made an error awarding a penalty to Manchester United on Saturday. But why this mania calling for him to apologise? What happens for the other 40-odd games when his judgment is spot on (and his reputation as England's top referee is well-earned)? An open-top bus ride perhaps?
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