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Jul 21, 2013

Asia demands more from big clubs

A Chinese Football official once said that Asia should treat the summer tours of big European clubs as similar to concerts of famous pop stars. It's not the same really. Music fans can go to any number of concerts featuring any number of artists while the whole existence of these football tours depends on passion for one club.

And if you go to a concert in Bangkok, you expect the same level of performance and energy that the band would give at home in Manchester or Liverpool. When the Beatles toured the world, John and Paul didn't stay at home with Ringo promising to join at a future date leaving a disinterested George to give the interviews and talk up the young replacements.

It is almost easier to list which of Europe's elite are not in Asia this year than the ones who are. Barcelona, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool have all travelled east, or are about to, while Bayern Munich did their exhibitions in the winter-break. These tours are now part of the calendar for both visitors and visited. Complaining about it all is common too but it doesn't go much further than emotional exhortations to support local teams.

Perhaps it is time to accept what is, after all, a free-market transaction between mega clubs and their legions of fans in the east. At the same time however, there need to be some regulations put in place to establish basic practices and standards for these European teams. Sometimes, especially in South-East Asia, it seems that cash-hungry clubs are on a wanton revenge mission for all the fake shirts available in the region.

Speak to Asian fans of European clubs and all they want when the exhibition season arrives is to get a feel for what it is really like to be an English fan of Manchester United, Chelsea or Liverpool. Cynics could say that that is exactly what happens as they are squeezed for as much money as possible without getting much in return, with sponsors and corporate types getting much closer to the stars - if the stars come at all.

Real Madrid's visit to China in 2005 and Barcelona's Korean tour in 2010 have become the dismal standard that should be avoided at all costs. Manchester United's visit to Thailand for the first leg of a 2013 tour did not sink quite so low but it was not one that will be fondly remembered. Earlier this year, outgoing CEO David Gill claimed the Reds had 19.5 million followers in Thailand, a country of 65 million. Quite what makes a follower is unclear - perhaps just a general awareness of the club's existence - but regardless, on recent evidence, United seem to feel that they certainly don't need any more.

The team that was fielded in Bankgok was a mixture of the old, young and unknown and would have looked out of place even in the earliest stage of the League Cup at home to non-League opposition. The club's biggest name Robin van Persie did a David De Gea and headed straight to Sydney. Add to that the fact that locals had to pay 500 ($16) baht to watch the Red Devils practice for this practice-match, and the general surliness of the United contingent then it all looks a little shoddy. So much so that not all believed that Wayne Rooney (who left almost as soon as arriving with a hamstring problem) was injured at all.

In some ways, it is a surprise. Manchester United have long led the way in Asia as a look at their list of official sponsors suggests. On past tours, annoyance at the club giving travelling English journalists much more access to players than local scribes apart (though most do this), all went relatively smoothly. More than any other of the elite, United have given Asian players a chance - heck, Alex Ferguson even gave Dong Fangzhou a run-out in the famous shirt. But then again, this is a club that, in 2007, organised a trip to Malaysia at the same time that the country was hosting the Asian Cup.

And then there's Chelsea. The Blues have established good relations with the Asian Football Confederation, were well-liked by former president Mohamed Bin Hammam, have an Asian sponsor and a growing following in the region. Compared to United, the Blues seemed to have done the job in Thailand, impressing locals with their more laid-back and open attitude. The tour's slogan of 'Here to play, here to stay' seemed to match the way Chelsea wanted to do things in the Land of Smiles.

But in Indonesia, you could add "you're here to pay" to that little motto. Fans in Jakarta were charged extortionate amounts to get close to their heroes - $2000 to meet the players and over $700 to get a shirt signed. At least Chelsea quickly moved to refund supporters ripped off, once the stories reached the UK media.

The problem was laid at the door of unscrupulous promoters. This is a familiar refrain. Any excess is blamed on these local partners but they are operating in an environment of greed that has been created by the clubs. There has to be some responsibility taken. Promoters have become more aggressive in recent years due to the increasing fees that touring teams demand. Naturally, ticket prices are as high as they can possibly go but these days paying for training and other stunts are becoming increasingly common.

Ideally, the local fans would vote with their feet and simply not shell out for tickets. The Manchester United line-up in Bangkok may have annoyed fans at the stadium but then there are plenty others waiting in the wings. If European clubs are going to persist in visiting Asia, and the signs are that they are, then it is time for such visits to be regulated instead of the current free-for-all.

The Asian Football Confederation should meet with the major leagues of Europe, especially the Premier League, and draft a universal code that lays down a few good practices. Ticket prices should be tailored to the local market, charging the equivalent of a day's salary to watch training should not be allowed and the selection of something resembling a strong team should be promised.

The AFC can't stop the tours but if the European leagues and clubs value good relations with the ruling body of the football scene's biggest continent, they will rein in some of the worst excesses. We all know that clubs see Asia as a source of cash. It would just be nice if they weren't so obvious about it.

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