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Feb 11, 2008

Global game has delusions of grandeur

The hysterical hordes make the airport barriers creak, such is their desperation to see Damien Johnson and Liam Ridgewell. The Shanghai branch of the Andy O'Brien fan club is out in force to grant their hero a rapturous welcome. Tokyo has never seen anything like it as the city comes to a standstill for the day that Danny Higginbotham lands in Japan.

And there is only one picture adorning the back page of all the American newspapers: Dean Leacock and Darren Moore posing in front of the Hollywood sign as Derby County prepare to face Wigan Athletic in an eagerly-anticipated sell-out in Los Angeles.

If those scenarios sound feasible to you, you're probably the owner of a football club. And, in particular, a club in the wrong half of the Premier League. Amid the depressing inevitability of the plans to stage matches all around the world, the self-delusion of some of those responsible for making such decisions is perhaps the most remarkable element.

Proprietors such as the Glazer family at Manchester United, Liverpool's Tom Hicks and George Gillett and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich can back these proposals, safe in the knowledge that their clubs have lucrative global fanbases. Financially, such a development could only aid them, as they well know.

Yet while they scheme to inflate their profits, perhaps envy has overcome their counterparts at lower-profile clubs. Maybe greed has obscured their critical faculties. The Premier League may be a highly effective collective bargaining tool, but that does not mean that support is democratically divided among its members, and especially not in football's most profitable marketplace.

While Scandinavian supporters of British clubs have often attracted admiration for their wholehearted devotion to some particularly unsuccessful teams, their embracing of the inept and the underachieving is not mirrored in other countries.

Indeed any examination of where the marketing men's odious acronym, the EPL, is most popular shows that, financially, one continent dominates: Asia. And any analysis of the Asian fanbase shows that the overwhelming majority of them support one of four clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United.

While Manchester City have acquired Thai support since Thaksin Shinawatra's takeover and Korean, Chinese or Japanese players will always have their personal backing, there is evidence to suggest that, fanatical though their support is, the Asian market is disproportionately focused on glamour, fame and success. Winning is a pre-requisite for their devoted support.

Or as the defiantly realistic Steve Coppell pointed out in November: 'There are 1.2 billion people in India who couldn't give a s**t what happens to Reading.' And, in truth, not just Reading. Everton are fourth in the Premier League, but barely command a mention in much of the football-supporting world. Aston Villa, to British and European supporters, would be regarded as a genuinely big club as well, under Martin O'Neill, a progressive and entertaining team. In some places, however, they barely rate a footnote.

So while, if the 39th stage is introduced to the season in 2010-11, each club would benefit by around £5 million, the notion that it is a form of football evangelism that would create pockets of supporters for each club across the planet is laughable. If David Gold, one of the advocates of the proposals, imagines that Birmingham would gain a group of fans in Guangzhou, he is mistaken. Even with Carson Yeung owning 29.9% of the club, he could not raise the funds in the Far East for a takeover. And if the somewhat mysterious men behind GSE can foresee a mushrooming of Derby's support in Myanmar, they are probably fantasising.

And instead of playing in front of their own supporters, such decision-makers risk turning their club into warm-up acts. If, as suggested, there are two games at each of five worldwide venues, the likelihood is that only one in each city will provoke genuine enthusiasm. Pity the poor teams involved in what is effectively the undercard. In England, Sunderland's home gate can exceed Chelsea's. Were both on the bill in, say, Hong Kong a deserted ground could greet Roy Keane's men were they to face, for instance, Fulham before the fans timed their arrival to watch the major event. Reverse the order of the games and there could be a mass exodus after half an hour of Wigan versus Reading because the Liverpool match had already been concluded.

Is that, to quote the Reading chairman John Madejski 'common sense'? It might be, as Gold said, 'making history', but if a match starts with an attendance five times greater than at the conclusion, not in the right way. And a reality check may be required for owners of the Premier League's lesser lights. They all generate support - in some cases, of admirable quantity and loyalty - in their own localities, and for a reason.

And envious as they may be when Manchester United embark on lucrative pre-season and even mid-season jaunts, everyone who witnessed the horror that was Bolton 0 Middlesbrough 0 should heed the words of the LA Galaxy general manager Alexi Lalas: 'We do not have a monopoly on crap soccer - it's played all over the world.' And merely moving a match several thousand miles will not make it an attractive proposition to a global market.

Email newsdesk@soccernet.com with your thoughts.