Liverpool hoping for Asian tonic
'Liverpool, don't come!' read the main sports headline in April on a mega-portal site in one of the countries lined up for the English team's summer Asian tour - not the kind of reaction you want when you are trying to expand your brand in the world's biggest continent.
But then knocking Manchester United off their perch as the No. 1 English team in Asia was never going to be easy. Even in the South-east, a region reared on Anfield domination of the 70s and 80s, Liverpool have fallen behind as Thailand national team coach Bryan Robson told me in Bangkok last September.
"I think United are No. 1 around here - they've taken over from Liverpool,'' he said. ''When I first went to Malaysia as a player, Liverpool were absolutely massive there but, with the success that United have had over the past 15 or 20 years, they have overtaken Liverpool. It's the same everywhere. You will capture a lot of fans if you are on television and winning tournaments."
It may be an obvious point but Robson is right. Manchester United have overtaken Liverpool through success on the pitch and then through a clever commercial strategy. The second will only have a significant effect if the first is in place, or looks like it is about to be. You have to be seen beating the big teams in the big games at home and abroad. Liverpool's absence from the big European competition (the Europa League is not on Asia's radar) for a second successive season is damaging. You don't need to be winning the Champions League, but you do need to be in the knockout stages year in and year out.
There are other avenues that can be explored to help a team grow in Asian markets and to supplement growing success on the pitch, and Liverpool are doing just that. One route goes through Malaysia, China and Korea this July as the Reds head east for pre-season games.
Countries like China and Japan will prove challenging as East Asia doesn't have the same long-standing fascination with England football and memories of Liverpool's success that exists in places like Thailand and Singapore. But Korea could be the hardest nut to crack as it really is Manchester United country with an estimated 1.2 million MUFC credit card customers.
Liverpool have been making efforts to develop ties there of late with mixed results. News of the forthcoming match has not been universally welcomed as the date initially proposed for the club's exhibition game was July 19 (dates still not officially confirmed). For domestic champions FC Seoul, this comes just two days after an important K-League match and 24 hours before the quarter-finals of the Korean FA Cup.
Initial talk of moving those games to allow the English team to come and play was the last straw for some, after disruptions to the local season with Manchester United and Barcelona last summer. Fans of other teams (and even many of FC Seoul) have been vocal in their protestations that the domestic program should remain untouched by foreign hands. Some prominent media commentators have said the same.
Barcelona's promotional visit didn't go well and the club actually suffered from bad publicity - its is never a good sign when the local league authority is forced to issue an official apology to fans and match organisers are rumoured to have moved close to bankruptcy.
What happened in the past is hardly Liverpool's fault but it does reduce the room to manoeuvre for a team seen to be slipping out of the Premier League big four. ''It's hard to get as excited about the visit of Liverpool compared to Manchester United,'' an official from FC Seoul told local media. ''But as it is a prestigious Premier League team, it is not a bad option.''
Liverpool do have one advantage over previous visitors however and it comes in the shape of Standard Chartered (and the fact that a growing number of people involved in East Asian football studied at Liverpool University's popular Football MBA program helps a little too), the organiser of the tour. The bank has a strong presence on the continent; helping Liverpool become a serious player in the east is a win-win situation.
Standard Chartered doesn't just sponsor Liverpool, it also, from March, sponsors the K-league's youth development program. The bank brought the two together in an interesting way at the end of April, organising a seminar to discuss that very program and inviting a number of coaches from Liverpool's academy as well as the legendary Ian Rush.
It was a visit of two halves. The seminar itself was something of a let-down. Instead of thoughts and lessons from Liverpool as to what youth football in Korea needed to move forward - the Land of the Morning Calm is a fertile breeding ground for young talent but is still in need of more systematic cultivation - came a dry recital of what an academy is, training schedules and work done to help youngsters gain UK academic qualifications such as GCSE and BTEC that had little meaning to the audience. Although the next day was much better as the coaches did what they did best and went to train local kids in Seoul.
Standard Chartered's involvement with Korean youth football could also be seen as providing another way for Liverpool to enter the hearts and minds of Asian fans as the bank's Gavin Laws mentioned publicly in March.
"The real power for what Liverpool could do for us, and I think for the English Premier League, is if there was a way they could nurture foreign players from Asia," Laws said. "You see what Park Ji-Sung does for Manchester United. The markets in Asia and the Middle East are so nationalistic, they are very proud about their countries. The market is saturated in Europe with so many clubs, how many more merchandise sales are they going to create over the next 10 years? If the clubs want to do merchandise sales going at an exponential rate you've got to be in China, you've got to be in Korea''
It sounds easy but Parks don't grow on trees. There is one though, often linked with Liverpool in the Asian media at least, and that is Park Chu-Young. Perhaps the second most popular Korean footballer, the 25-year-old is just finishing his third year at AS Monaco and despite relegation struggles has scored 12 goals this season. The intelligent striker has, however, impending military duties that will limit his time in Europe. Compatriot Lee Chung-Yong at Bolton has no such worries and the 22-year-old is already in the Premier League, the North-west to boot, and ever since he signed for Bolton Wanderers and started to show what he could do, the winger has been linked with Liverpool.
An Asian signing certainly doesn't have to be Korean, but outside that nation and Japan, there aren't many other options with the work permit rules that UK clubs operate under. Keisuke Honda is the obvious Samurai Blue star that could make a difference. The World Cup's blond bombshell is ready to leave CSKA Moscow in the summer and his arrival at Anfield would do wonders for the club's Asian profile. A growing number of Japanese players are starring in the Bundesliga, but that league lacks the Premier League's global glamour. No Japanese player has done anything of note in England and the arrival of Honda would be a big deal for the player, the club, Japan and Asia.
Signing an Asian star sounds like an easy option (though there is a risk of constant negative headlines and bad feeling if things don't go well) and some players have arrived in Europe to be immediately labelled as 'shirt-sellers'. Sometimes that may have been the plan but clubs have realised that signing players who are not good enough for the first team is a waste of time. Only the best Asian players playing for the best European teams can bring significant and long-term commercial benefits.
It all comes back to winning and winning consistently, it always does. Success comes first, driving the tours, the deals and the new fans. Add a top Asian player or two to that mix and there are real possibilities. Liverpool may have fallen off their perch in Asia and may be about to do the same in England but, in Asia, things change quickly.