Pre-season tours: It’s a blue planet, or soon will be if Jose Mourinho and Chelsea get their way
Mourinho and his squad have gone East in an effort to raise the club’s profile and image
There is a Singha beer television commercial currently playing everywhere in Bangkok featuring a group of Chelsea players in action against a team of extras, the kind that is stitched together with some CGI effects in an attempt to make it seem they are playing in a stadium in front of a crowd. The final frame is of John Terry and team-mates waving a little self-consciously at the camera and saying in unison “See you in Bangkok!”
The only one to rival it for airplay is an almost identical Singha commercial featuring Manchester United players in which Rio Ferdinand, Robin Van Persie and others celebrate scoring a goal by turning to the camera and making the Thai “wai” greeting, palms pressed together accompanied by a slight bow of the head.
The commercial summer tour to the east has become such a feature of the summer for the Premier League’s biggest clubs that it is easy to take for granted the manner in which advertisers fling money at their visitors from England. United have already been in Bangkok and are now in Sydney before two games in Japan and another in Hong Kong. Arsenal are currently in Vietnam having played in Indonesia which is where Chelsea go for the third game of their tour with another match in Malaysia before then.
Chelsea’s tour of Asia is the second of three overseas trips encompassing eight games this summer and they go back to the United States next month, having played two post-season games there against Manchester City. As it is in Bangkok, you can choose to ignore the Chelsea-branded billboards of Fernando Torres endorsing a Thai car tyre brand or Didier Drogba advertising Singha beer (in spite of the fact he left the club a year ago) but you cannot miss them.
When Jose Mourinho originally joined Chelsea, nine years ago, his first job was to embark on a summer tour of America, the first major commercial tour of its kind that the club had done and a project the then-chief executive Peter Kenyon had brought from his days at Manchester United. Kenyon infamously promised “to turn the world blue” in 2005 and today’s game against Singha All-Stars will make for an interesting comparison with United, that market leader in taking their brand global.
United sold out the Rajamangala National Stadium on Saturday as Chelsea hope to do tomorrow. There were around 3,000 supporters at training earlier today, who were delighted at having free footballs booted up to them by the players as they came out to train. The Stamford the Lion mascot toys went down well too, and in the act of throwing dozens into the crowd, Stamford himself arguably put in the hardest shift of the evening. The humidity must be no joke in that furry suit.
Chelsea have issued a glossy tour guide to accompany their three games in Asia, published in English and the language of the host country. The 2013 Asia tour comes under the “Here to play, here to stay” slogan which the club uses to promote its charity works in this part of the world: its partnership with the “Right to Play” charity, its sponsored blue pitches (there are eight in South East Asia with two more planned) as well as coaching and health initiatives.
Undoubtedly the success of the Roman Abramovich decade, which began under Mourinho, as well as the relentless summer touring has raised Chelsea’s profile around the world – but how much? These things are notoriously difficult to measure and the figure the club gives for its global supporter base based on independent research – 400m with half in Asia – feels, as with all these kind of estimates, entirely arbitrary.
It is the third time the club have embarked on major Asian tours since the Abramovich takeover, excluding the Premier League Asia Cup they played in 2003 just after the Russian arrived. They played in China and Malaysia in 2008 and Malaysia, Thailand and Hong Kong two years ago. Nowadays the club have a managing director of Asia Pacific among their executives. All a far cry from their first foray into the continent in 1973 when they played three games on tour in Iran, a trip unlikely to be repeated for the time being.
As with his managerial counterparts at the other leading Premier League clubs, Mourinho is expected to combine the minutiae of the preparation for the season with the broader picture of signing autographs and saying some nice things about the countries that make up English football’s emergent markets. He was on good form today, apart from one grumble about the state of the pitch at the Rajamangala, which looked dry and patchy at Chelsea’s training session.
When it was suggested to Mourinho that he looked a much happier, more relaxed man than he did at Real Madrid last season, his response was instinctive. “My wife was right. She is a person nobody [in the football media] knows and she doesn't talk about football. But she does the best she can and she told me a few times in Madrid that I needed to be happy to be able to give my best.
“I need to be happy to be motivated, to spend my time organising training sessions and enjoying the sessions, to enjoy to be with the players outside the training sessions – and I'm having all of this here.”
For him, the measure of the pre-season’s success has been in what he described as “14 training sessions, 21 hours of high intensity work” although he does not yet have the full complement of players at his disposal. He confirmed that Torres, David Luiz, Juan Mata, Oscar and Cesar Azpilicueta will not join up until a week on Sunday, in time to go on the American trip but not to meet any of the supporters here who have gazed up at their billboards.
Chatting today after his set-piece press conference for Singha what exercised Mourinho most was how he expects his team to play next year, the 4-2-3-1 formation which he believes suits the squad’s strengths. “This is a squad where we have not one or two but three or four players who like very much to be a No 10: [Kevin] De Bruyne, Oscar, Mata and [Eden] Hazard. They can play other positions but they like the No.10. It is a natural system for these players, with two in midfield and one [No 10] behind the three attackers.”
There was no immediate reassurance for Mata that he would be first choice – “I need to get to know him better,” Mourinho said – observing that the Spain international was the only left-footed player he could deploy successfully on the right “The competition is hard. We will have Andre Schurrle, De Bruyne, Mata, Oscar, Hazard and Moses for these three positions. We have many more options than Chelsea had last year and these are crucial positions for me. I like these players to play with high intensity so to have five for three positions is fantastic.”
He does not want to lose his first game back in charge of the club, that was clear, but Mourinho is obliged to test out his options with the start of the new Premier League season just one month and two days away for Chelsea. When he arrived last time the challenge was to establish Chelsea as a competitive force as well as build a global sporting institution and nine years on the expectations in both respects are no different.
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