The double-edged sword of pre-season
Arsene Wenger once said he could not imagine ever taking his team on a pre-season tour of Asia or North America. Pre-season was about preparing for a long and gruelling campaign. Going on tour meant travel (however luxurious, it's still a pain), jet lag and endless distractions. That's why he preferred a nice training camp up in the mountains of Austria.
That was then, this is now. Arsenal went on an Asian tour last season and did the same this summer, playing games in Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Beijing. Next week, the Gunners are off to Abuja, Nigeria, to take on the Nigerian national team. But for the 2012 Olympics, they would probably have crammed the Emirates Cup in there as well, though at least that's held in North London.
Or how about Real Madrid? Last year, it was seven games in seven cities in five countries on three continents. This year - after cancelling a scheduled game in Morocco - it's all toned down somewhat: six games, six cities, three countries, two continents.
It's a similar story with most of the top sides in Europe's biggest leagues. Pre-season means plenty of travel, out-reach and exhibitions dressed up as meaningful games. The knee-jerk reaction by some is to dismiss all of this as a rather crass commercial exercise. Somebody writes a huge cheque and Club X dutifully shows up. Pay enough money and you could probably get them to play five-a-side in your back yard. (Actually, if you can afford to get a Milan or a Real Madrid or a Manchester United to perform in your home, you can probably afford a full-size pitch.) And to make sure they get their money's worth, some organisers make the appearance fee conditional on getting the big names on the pitch.
You can almost imagine the negotiation: "OK, we'll give you 100 widgets if Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta are all on the pitch for 90 minutes, but only 60 if we don't get Messi and 50 if it's only one of the other two guys. And, of course, if they only play one half then our fee is halved ..."
It's obviously not just about appearance fees. It's also about brand-building, sponsorship opportunities and staging the types of games that can be marketed and sold to broadcasters in July and early August when there really isn't too much football of any note to watch.
It's easy to be cynical about this. And when you figure out for yourself that your club is flying halfway around the world to drum up some cash to pay for a reserve defender who might make half a dozen appearances all year or, worse, the commission of an agent who did little more than make a few phone calls, it's a bit depressing. But, in fact, there's more to it than that. Having had the privilege over the past few years of attending a number of these games in Asia and North America, I can tell you it's about something else, too. It's about taking your club and your stars to fans who might never get to see them in the flesh, not because they are any less passionate or informed, but simply because they live on different continents.
Sound corny? Sure, maybe it is. But the bonds that exist between far-flung fans and their clubs are no less real. They're just lived out in a different way. I've met Liverpool fans who have never set foot in Europe but who can give you capsule reviews of every single one of Steven Gerrard's performances last season. And Juventus supporters who cut and paste articles from Italian websites and put them through Google Translate so they can devour as much information as possible about their beloved Bianconeri.
I've also noticed a difference in the way they watch these games which, for all the tinpot trophies handed out, ultimately are no more than exhibitions. They know what they're watching isn't "real" in the competitive sense. Players are at different stages fitness-wise, some are heavy-legged, some are only returning from their break and playing at half-speed. Managers make tons of substitutions, youngsters and reserves who would ordinarily stay rooted to the bench (if not the stands) are given ample playing time. Yet that's OK.
Supporters still come and watch because they love their club and because they've developed an appreciation of what's going on. Pre-season is about trying different things, impressing the manager, winning a spot in the side. If you want the real deal, you need to wait for the season to start. And that's fine. I didn't meet anyone who drew deep conclusions about the state of Chelsea, AC Milan or Aston Villa - the three European sides I watched in the past two weeks - based on their games on tour in the United States. They were just happy to be there and be a part of it.
Do these factors - commercial benefits and strengthening the bond between far-flung flans and the clubs - outweigh the downsides in terms of travel and fatigue?
It's tough to say. In a perfect world, most managers would rather keep their clubs close to home and have a quiet, sheltered pre-season. And, indeed, some top clubs - not many - have opted to do just that. But Real Madrid, for one, went globe-trotting with the best of them last year and showed no ill-effects: they won La Liga and came within a penalty kick or two of making the Champions League final.
Let's not be fooled. Without the big bucks at stake, clubs would not be going on pre-season tours. That's why they tend to hit bigger media markets in North America and Asia rather than, say, South America (where the domestic product is strong) or Africa (which can't match the other continents commercially). Yet that doesn't mean that, for local supporters, these tours aren't an important link to their club. And that the game isn't better off because of them.
Gabriele Marcotti is a London-based journalist and broadcaster who covers world soccer. He is the author of three books, the world soccer columnist for The Times of London and a correspondent for the Italian daily Corriere dello Sport. You can catch him on ESPN Press Pass and read him here twice a week.