The Premier League season has barely finished, yet already the Premier League PR machines are working at full throttle. A number of clubs have already played, or are due to play, games in all corners of the planet against token oppositions who provide little to no competition. All of this of course, in the name of promoting ‘the brand’ to fans who might not ordinarily be able to see their heroes in the flesh.
Over the last 10-15 years in particular, pre-season has become more about brand-building, than suitably preparing a team for the rigours of the campaign ahead. In 2018, José Mourinho said that he wouldn’t have paid to watch Manchester United’s game against Liverpool in Michigan. By Mourinho’s own admission, both clubs had not been able to field strong sides and he felt the US fans should have saved their money; as Napoli fans did when they played Arsenal in a half-empty stadium.
Manchester United have announced that they will be playing in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s hometown club, Kristiansund. Now, I may sound cynical, but I can’t imagine they are playing there for the severe test the Norwegian team will provide. Solskjaer, towing the club line, opined that the game will be an important part of the preparation for the new season, and they aim to hit the ground running. Is playing a league-2 equivalent side really the way to do that? Tellingly, he gives the game away by referring to the huge Scandinavian following that United possess – coincidence, no?
Similarly, Chelsea’s social media has been awash with PR charm as they started their their US tour merely one day after the end of the Premier League season. Like most of these meaningless games; Chelsea travelled to the USA with 5 new youngsters in the squad, fully intending to play a team that’s substantially different to their normal starting 11. Mauricio Sarri bemoaned the lack of rest his players would get due to their hectic travel schedule, less than 2 weeks before their Europa League final.
The question I would have is this: can it be right, that the preparation for a major European final is secondary to the requirement for promoting the Chelsea ‘brand’ across the pond? Clearly the club think so – even if it contradicts the views of the manager. If Chelsea go on to lose the final, it will be interesting to see if Sarri attributes any blame on this senseless travel burden.
Playing a team in China, Canada or Cambodia during pre-season might help to reassure the fans in these countries that they are part of the fabric of the club, but surely even they must despair at the quality of match that they go and see. The worst part for these fans, is that they often don’t even get to see the big names of their favourite clubs play. From a football perspective, it renders the fixture almost entirely meaningless.
Clubs would point out that pre-season is an opportune time to blood a few youngsters on the edges of the first-team picture – regardless of where in the world they were playing. They would argue that sourcing opponents from leagues such as the MLS and the Chinese Super League is satisfactory because the standard is improving each year. They would also legitimately point out that pre-season is the only opportunity they have to engage with their international fans in person.
The PR machines at these clubs are well-versed in justifying the presence of their team in a country with a vastly inferior quality of opposition, and often, no football ‘heritage’ as Jose would say. The truth is that fans can see these tours for the cynical market-share grab that they are, and wish the time could be spent more productively -fine tuning the team for the upcoming campaign.