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Aug 5, 2010

Barcelona fail to live up to Asian expectations

Barcelona vie for trophies, titles, fans and glory with Real Madrid all over Europe but they are now threatening to take an unwanted accolade from their bitter rivals - that of the most unpopular 21st Century tour from a European team in Asia.

In 2005, the galacticos of David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Michael Owen and Ronaldo left Beijing to a chorus of disapproval. A lack of interest, arriving late at press conferences and cancelling appearances were the charges, a rap sheet that would now look familiar across the Yellow Sea in South Korea.

As the Spanish champions jetted out of Seoul and into Beijing, just two hours after taking on a K-League All Star team in an exhibition match that they won 5-2, they left behind a nation disappointed. The tour was up against it from the start and it is not just Barcelona that has been criticised. Sports Story, the agency that organized the event and is rumoured to be facing bankruptcy, got it in the neck for allowing the team to come without any of its World Cup winning stars such as David Villa, Andres Iniesta, Carlos Puyol and Xavi, and then setting ticket prices starting at over $45 - around five times the price of an average K-league match.

With sales sluggish and stars absent, it was hoped that Barcelona would do their utmost to create excitement but it wasn't to be, so much so that in an official statement issued at the end of the visit, the K-League accused the Europeans of an "insincere attitude" during their visit, echoing what the Seoul media had been saying for the previous 48 hours.

There was no talking at the airport and while Lionel Messi and Dani Alves were obviously tired at the first press conference the day after, they seemed to neither know nor care where they were. Dani Alves said that "Brazil played against Korea in the World Cup. They were a very good team". Messi, who actually did play against South Korea in South Africa, replied when asked for his first 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."

If you don't get a second chance to make a first impression there are always ample opportunities to make things worse. In the official pre-match press conference held the following day, coach Pep Guardiola told reporters that Messi would not feature in the match. The reaction around the room was audible. Lee Jun-ha, the general secretary of the K-League, shook his head, laughed and quickly left the room.

Translation may be partly to blame but the coach seemed dismissive of Korean concerns about Messi - insensitively so as with the other absences, this visit had, rightly or wrongly, become the 'Messi Show'. Comments that the superstar could say 'hello' and could train but could not play, did not go down well.

As soon as Guardiola left for a training session, officials from the organising agency asked reporters to stay for an impromptu press briefing. Shocked and confused, they revealed that Messi was contractually obligated to play for at least 30 minutes (in truth, the financial penalty for the star not playing was fairly small and in the end he played 17 minutes, scored two fine goals and was well-received by the fans in the half-full stadium) and that Guardiola's position was not necessarily the official position of the club. They would, they insisted, be talking to Barcelona as soon as possible. Four hours later, at 12.30am local time, Korean journalists received a text message saying that Messi would play, though a planned press conference and event in the morning had been cancelled, as had a media meeting the previous evening. It was clear when that morning dawned that all parties wanted the whole thing to be over as soon as possible.

Just last week, the CEO of La Liga talked off the importance of the league trying to match the English Premier League in the hearts, minds and wallets of Asian fans but the benefits in the east have to be earned. Nobody expects Barcelona players, who battle for league, Champions league and world titles, to see a trip to East Asia as a highlight of the year but if the club is happy to receive €2.3 million and be treated very well, for what is, after all, an opportunity for self-promotion, a semblance of enthusiasm is needed. Even with a sizeable debt, put at €442 million by Deloitte in July, Barcelona were not forced to come to China and Korea.

They may not get many more chances to do so. Deals done by private companies paying big bucks to bring big European clubs to Asia and expecting to make a profit don't look to be sustainable any more, if they ever really were even organisers of the relatively successful Manchester United tour of 2009 struggled to break even. The Asian fan of 2010 is not the one of the nineties when the storied teams were welcomed and loved unconditionally. Sure, they still love to see the global stars in action but expectations are there.

They want to be treated with respect while they are being relieved of their money and in Korea at least, there is a feeling that Barcelona, a club that is supposed to be more than a club, doesn't actually seem to be as much of a club as people thought.

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