Tuesday, September 25, 2012


Asian Money Trumps English Traditions

Yellow is a very special color for many Arsenal fans. It is associated with success. In the 1971 FA Cup final, for example, yellow was worn as Arsenal came from behind to beat Liverpool after extra time and secure their first double. 

Eight years later they won the Cup again. Wearing yellow. 

Then there was 1989, Mickey Thomas and all that. Winning the old Division One at Anfield, against Liverpool, they wore yellow shirts.

On the other hand, fans, die hard traditionalists at heart, do not have that have emotional attachment to blue, or white, or purple, which have been used in recent years. Primarily because they are not associated with winning trophies in the way yellow is.

Not that the club seem too worried. This season’s second choice shirt is a purple and black number and it is apparently "selling well." Traditionalists, the old school, are up in arms about it but the club are looking at the bottom line and, especially, the lucrative Chinese market.

Talking to an Arsenal supporters' group recently, commercial director Tom Fox was quizzed about shirt designs, and while he recognized the role yellow has played in the club's history, he inferred that was not as important as the Asian consumer. 

"You want a yellow shirt with blue trim, I get it. There are fans in China that don’t want that," he told the supporters. He went on to say they, and kids in N5, Arsenal’s home turf in London, wanted something more fashionable to wear with their contemporary clothing.

Arsenal have jumped on the Asian bandwagon in the last 15 months or so with tours to China, Malaysia and Hong Kong. But it’s not just about shirt sales. It’s about raising the club’s profile in a part of the world that companies are rushing headlong into. And it’s about attracting sponsors who either want a piece of that action or they are already there but looking to expand themselves.

Watch a Premier League game most weekends and you can see how the clubs, and the league, are bending over backwards to chase the Asian dollar. Or baht. Or ringgit. 

Liverpool, Everton, Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers have sponsors on their club shirt who are either Asian in origin or have a large presence in Asia while the likes of West Ham United, Wigan Athletic, Swansea City and Stoke City have online gambling sites.

It’s not just on the shirts that Asia is being targeted or showing off its wealth. Take a look at the A boards and you can see a Thai brewing war revolving in front of TV audiences around the world. Liverpool recently signed a deal with Indonesia’s flag carrier while a sports website, strongly and subtly, linked to a major tobacco company, also features prominently.

And there’s more. Queens Park Rangers, Leicester City and Cardiff City are owned by rich businessmen from Thailand (Leicester) and Malaysia. Seeing replica Leicester City shirts on sale at Bangkok’s international airport among the more familiar duty free brands takes some getting used to. And some chicken farmers own Blackburn Rovers.

Cardiff City have of course gone one step further in their attempts to appeal to a new breed of supporter. The Malaysian owned club have ditched their traditional blue shirts in a bid to attract fans in a culture where dragons and the color red carry strong messages of wealth and power, alienating some of their doorstep in the process. For now though it does seem most fans are giving the new owners the benefit of the doubt with the move but how long the honeymoon lasts remains to be seen.

A few years ago nobody in Malaysia would have known anything at all about Cardiff; indeed cynics may say they still don’t. But will a Malaysian owning a little known football club be enough to open the club to people who have already been following English football a decade or more and already have their own teams in red they support?

English fans have long been moaning about the crass commercialism of the game, especially the Premier League and its 'greed is good' policy, and the look east is only causing more consternation as fans who have followed their clubs through thick and thin now find themselves being marginalized by the perceived influx of foreign money. 

There are pitfalls to this easy money. Everton, who have had a long and successful relationship with a Thai beer company, had their fingers burnt when they were due to go on a tour to Indonesia only to find it cancelled at the last minute for reasons that remain unclear but probably revolve around money.

The English Premier League may not be the best league in the world but it doesn’t matter. Had satellite TV been worldwide in the late 1980s or early 1990s perhaps Italian clubs would be the most popular. But it wasn’t. The big English clubs and their players are brands. And like all brands they are there to be exploited. 

A new TV deal will boost the money flowing into clubs, but most of it will likely end up in players' and agents' pockets leaving clubs again scouring the globe for sponsors and revenue sources. With fans already being squeezed by high ticket prices, the most expensive seats for Arsenal v Chelsea later this month are a mind-boggling 123.50 GBP (Rp 1.85 million) and the cheapest at a mere 62.00 GBP, fans cannot be expected to keep bearing the brunt and Fox recognized that recently by saying the club was after 95 percent revenue growth coming from the club’s international business.

Traditions may be nice and may be what brings a club and its support together, but they don’t pay the bills. Expect to see more changes as new owners tinker with their club to attract new support and new money.

First published in Jakarta Globe

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Fergie Strangely Silent On Dodgy Pen

Sir Alex Ferguson has shown himself up for being the parochial, biased, self centered, hypocritical man that he is.

Following his team's 1-0 reverse at Goodison Park in their opening game of the season, Fergie came out and blamed everyone for the defeat. He had a pop at Everton's style of play and intimated the home support had influenced the match officials.

Last week, back in Old Trafford bunker surrounded by his supplicants and gophers, the Scottish manager showed that the Olympic spirit that had temporarily effused the nation had gone.

United were given a penalty that was not a penalty. Except at Old Trafford. The Wigan Athletic keeper can be seen clearly pulling out of the challenge. But a baying home support cranked up the volume and the ref caved on, awarding United just one of many soft penalties they,and to be fair other big teams, will likely receive this season.

Did we see Fergie rush to the media and complain about the justice or morality of the decision so blatantly influenced by intimidating fans? Did he rush to say the ref had got it wrong? Did he offer any sympathy to the beleaguered Wigan manager over the unfairness of the decision?

Nope. He did none of those things.

And why should he? If he feels he can manipulate or intimidate match officials into giving his team the 50/50s then he is going to continue to do so.

The Olympic spirit is all very noce and wishy washy. But it is also patronising and does not win trophies.


Boro End Rovers Unbeaten Run

Blackburn Rovers' fans remain unconvinced. Despite remaining top of the Championship following their first defeat of the season at home to Middlesbrough manager Steve Kean has again come under fire for Rovers' poor showing over 90 minutes.

Victory for Rovers would have seen a four point gap open up over a cluster of teams sitting just below them on 13 points but it wasn't to be for the home team and the defeat has just succeeded in opening the taps of vitriol one more time and for the first time this season the chants of Kean Out echoed round Ewood Park.

Fans are still staying away in their thousands. Just over 13,000 turned up last night for the Middlesbrough game, still 10,000 short of Premier League attendances. The record signing of Jordan Rhodes and his spectacular start had given the club something of a boost but the old antagonisms remain bubbling under the surface as witnessed by the cyber schadenfreude that followed this defeat.

The club owners, chicken farmers from India, have stuck doggedly with Kean since relegation, just one bone of many contentions fans have, and the question is are they tiring of backing their man?

Rovers, with all the disquiet going on in the background, have started the season brightly with four wins and two draws in their opening half dozen games but performances have been less than stellar against opposition from mid table or below. Opponents like Barnsley (18th), Ipswich Town (23rd) and Leeds United (14th).

Middlesbrough on the other hand came into the  game with nothing to show for their first three games. Yet their win propelled them up to 6th place, just two points behind Blackburn, despite boasting a negative goal difference.

Are Blackburn top because they have found the secret of winning ugly against mediocre teams? Have they just had an easy start to the season? Is the Championship a genuinely weak division?

Six games in is too early to assess the strength or otherwise of the division. A better indicator though of how well Rovers match up against the other teams will come on 3rd October when Rovers travel to Nottingham Forest.

The East Midlands club remain unbeaten and have had some serious investment over the summer. A good result there, coupled with a good performance, may convince a few of the sceptics that there is more to Rovers than doggedness and luck.

Defeat there, and a poor result away to Charlton Athletic next time out and that axe could well be being sharpened.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012


New Whines, Old Bottles

First appeared in Jakarta Globe

It’s been the worst of weeks. The transfer window slammed shut last Friday and with international duty occupying many minds headline writers have had their work cut out trying to fill the cavernous spaces the footballing public demand.
In the days of the cold war, old China watchers used to scan the pictures of the political elite looking for what was not there. Without an open press, without leaks or inside sources, governments had to rely on who was featured prominently in the papers and who was not to infer which way the wind was blowing in the secretive communist state. Policy would be dictated by someone’s pose or presence in a grainy black and white photograph.
You can imagine, then, many an editor and writer breathing a huge sigh of relief and offering a silent prayer of thanks to headline magnet, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo it seems no longer makes headlines for scoring goals. His brace last weekend made it 114 in 104 games for Real Madrid. Hitting the back of the net with such regularity is no longer enough though to make the news.
What grabbed people’s attention this time was the way the Portuguese striker celebrated. He didn’t. No ripping off his shirt to show off his six pack, no turning cartwheels, no bearing his teeth or punching the air. Nothing.
It was later revealed that Ronaldo was sad. That was enough to send people into a spin. For the vast majority of people struggling with a deteriorating economy the idea of a multi millionaire may be sad would be met with a shrug of the shoulders and who cares?
But this is football. We seem to allow footballers more leeway than businesspeople.
Many rushed to surmise why the poor dear should be so upset and most suggested money be the problem. As if 12 million Euros a year could cause anyone any hardship.
This was manna from heaven for sports writers looking at a quiet week. They put two and two together and decided Ronaldo was either angling for a move or setting out his stall in upcoming contract negotiations; suggestions the man himself was quick to deny.
It didn’t matter though what he said. Everyone was quick to link Ronaldo with clubs like Manchester City or Paris Saint German or any Russian club who could afford to better his current hardship allowance.
Hot on the heels of Ronaldo’s sulk came Cesc Fabregas. He hadn’t played the full 90 minutes yet in any of Barcelona’s opening three games and he went public saying he was unhappy with a bit part role at the Spanish side.
He went on to say that he would take his ‘unhappy’ face home if he had to rather than let his manager or team mates see it. Tellingly he added that he had moved back to Spain to ‘compete, to learn and enjoy, not sit wracking my brains’.
The headlines the next day? Cesc being linked with a move back to Arsenal!
A moan by Arsenal’s French full back, Bacary Sagna, in a French newspaper made it a hat trick of whines to dominate the headlines this week.
Sagna, recovering from a long term injury, said he was upset when Alex Song left the club in the summer. Not Robin van Persie which had been on the cards, but Song. He said that Alex leaving was a surprise saying that he was 24 years old and still had three years left on his contract.
‘In the street supporters sometimes come to see me,’ Sagna was quoted as saying, ‘I can understand they are annoyed. I’m like them. I don’t understand everything.’
Of course he doesn’t understand everything. It’s not his job to understand everything. It’s his job to play football. However having been injured for a long time, and not having the most demanding job in the world it is only natural to wonder what is going on.
Sagna’s doubts have been seized on by Arsenal fans, and the media, haunted by the last couple of seasons when players like Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie were allowed to have their contracts wind down meaning a summer of protracted rumour and he said, she said headlines.
Thankfully, next week the real business of kicking a ball around returns and we can start talking about what happens on the field!


Everyone Loves A Swan

First appeared in Jakarta Globe

Swansea City have certainly been a breath of fresh air in the sometimes fetid Premier League. Totally unfashionable, lacking in any real football pedigree, coming from Wales. There is absolutely nothing in their DNA to suggest the Swans are anything more than a lower league club with aspirations of a giant killing in one of the domestic cups once in a while.
They flirted briefly in Division One a decade before Sky TV came along and invented the Premier League and, by extension, English football.
Their manager at the time, John Toshack, was a Liverpool legend and he gathered around him a whole galaxy of other former Liverpool legends, players like Ian Callaghan and Ray Kennedy.
The Swans climbed the divisions reaching the top flight in 1981 and even, for a few glorious days, led the table.
It didn’t last of course. It wasn’t a model designed to last. By packing the first X1 with experienced but aging pros approaching retirement there was no Plan B. As the players wrinkled the club withered and fell, ingloriously, back down the leagues and almost going bust.
Now they’re back. And rather than being a retirement home for the aged, who now tend to go into the far safer and far warmer TV studio, they have been able to attract promising young managers who in turn have made this city on the south coast of Wales a far more cosmopolitan place than it has ever been before.
Given their visceral rivalry with Cardiff, just along the coast, it is a sign of the times that the city of Swansea have so openly embraced the new faces that have come to the football club with their new ideas.
First there was the Spaniard Roberto Martinez followed by Paolo Sousa, his compatriot. Then Northern Irishman Brendan Rodgers. And now the Great Dane himself; Michael Laudrup.
It’s all a far cry from the more traditional appointee, the likes of Colin Appleton, Frank Burrows and John Bond; journeymen managers who inspire images of flat caps and cold showers.
Swansea’s first season in the Premier League delighted everyone with their delicious passing and movement. They even beat Arsenal 3-2 at home with a performance that must have even had the usually sour loser Arsene Wenger purring at least inwardly.
Players like Scott Sinclair, Nathan Dyer and Joe Allen impressed. So much so the former is likely to join Manchester City, the latter has joined his former gaffer Rodgers at Liverpool.
Yet the dream isn’t over. Instead, Laudrup has come in and the fans must be rubbing their eyes in disbelief. That Laudrup, perhaps the greatest player Denmark ever produced; the Laurdup who played for both Barcelona and Real Madrid, should have been sold on the dreams of a small provincial club in the south of Wales is nothing short of astounding.
Yet it follows the theme began in 2007 when Martinez came in. Young, eager, innovative managers with a thing to prove who believe in playing football on the ground.
Faced with the departure of Allen and the imminent loss of Sinclair, Laudrup acted quickly to bring in new players. And after just two games one of them, Spaniard Michu, has already impressed with his ability and workrate.
His goal at Loftus Road in the opening day win against Queens Park Rangers highlighted his ability. Latching on to a sublime through ball, he was able to curl the ball past the hapless Robert Green. It was a highlight on a day of highlights.
The win over West Ham United at their own Liberty Stadium highlighted his work ethic. Visiting defender James Collins looked unsure in possession in his own half. Scenting an opportunity, Michu moved in. Collins panicked and played the ball back to his keeper. But the delivery of the back pass lacked power, Michu pounced and it was 2-0.
Despite their fine start, two wins and no goals conceded, Laudrup will admit that the fixture list has been kind to his team. Many challenges lie ahead and no doubt, in fine management speak, he will talk about how his team’s goal is Premier League survival.
Along the way you can be sure they will win many more admirers.


Revolting Rovers Fans

I don’t pretend to know all the ins and outs about the on-going soap opera that is playing itself out at Ewood Park but I do know this. For any fan to take the bold decision to stop following their team; that is one big decision that will not have been taken lightly.
That hasn’t been much to cheer about for Blackburn Rovers fans for some time now. I think many will be comfortable with that. They will recall their third division days as well as their single Premier League success under those few heady days flushed with Jack Walker’s cash.
But nothing lasts forever. Blackburn’s title success came before the Premier League became the massive global brand it is now so there was little impact to their support. Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton did not encourage kids in Singapore or Bangkok to rush out and buy those famous blue and white shirts. The title came five years too early!
Many Rovers fans will recall the days of lower league football. The name Simon Garner will probably mean as much to them as David Beckham does to 21st century Manchester United fans. They know football ain’t all about glory and they probably expect the odd, long, downturn more than another Premier League success.
Then came the chicken farmers. It doesn’t matter where the poultry peddlers came from, they started off with a massive PR cock up by saying they didn’t know anything about football and anyway they wanted to build their own brand.
As opening pitches to get fans/potential customers on your side it takes some beating.
From there on it gets murky. A manager is sacked, another brought in. An agent is operating behind the scenes, pulling strings and considered by many outside the club to be having an undue influence on the goings on. Communication from the club is perceived to be garbled at best, contradictory at worst.
Last season Ewood Park echoed to the sound of Kean Out. A plane flew overhead, trailing a banner saying Kean Out. The team was relegated, the fans still chanted Kean Out.
Teams all over the place lose and fans turn on the manager. It’s part of the job and managers are thick skinned enough not to let it worry them.
But these protests were not just about the manager and poor results. They are about foreign ownership in general. The way in which the Football Association allows itself to roll over and have its tummy tickled anytime some rich foreigner comes over with a thick wad of cash. Money is everything, motives and experience don’t count.
At a time when football clubs are in the news for financial mismanagement, read Portsomouth and Rangers, Blackburn are just being mismanaged. And no one is lifting a finger.
Manchester United are up to their eyeballs in debt and have taken a massive gamble on Robin van Persie. Arsenal rely on player sales to supplement TV and gate revenues. And Manchester City and Chelsea have their own private sugar daddy to push the prices up so only they can compete and anyone else who tries will surely bust. Cardiff City fans have had to see their club badge and club colours change to sate the whims of their investors whose target audience is far from the valleys of south Wales.
None of this seems to matter to the FA, with their head in the sand, who point to continued worldwide interest in the Premier League and say what problems?
During the summer the fans continued with their theme. Kean Out. A global advisor was bought in and he just added to the confusion.
Against this backdrop, many fans decided to take the most extreme course of action available to them. Withhold their cash. A footballing seppuku. Stay away from games. Don’t buy merchandise. Hit the chicken farmers where it hurts the most.
Season ticket sales are half what they were last season and they in turn were down on previous seasons. Attendances in the early days of the new season have hovered around the 13,500 mark. A whopping 9,000 down on last season when they got relegated.
The club also have no sponsorship deals in place. They have no one on their club shirt, which may be no bad thing anyway say traditionalists, and recently a stand sponsor refused to extend their deal.
The club is a mess. This is not just about money. The new owners have splashed some cash and the signing of Scottish striker Jordan Rhodes shows some ambition.
But the fans ain’t buying. They remain adamant they will not return to the club until Steve Kean and the owners have gone.

First appeared in Jakarta Globe 


Fergie's Last Sheikh Of The Dice

Poor Sir Alex Ferguson. He has been so used to getting things done his way over 25 years of unbridled success that the last few months can’t have been easy for him to swallow. Losing the Premier League in such dramatic circumstances when Manchester City came from behind the last minutes of the season at home to Queens Park Rangers won’t have gone down well with a man used to success on his own terms.
Frequently last season Sir Alex commented about his club’s new, straitened circumstances. Manchester City had changed the game with the deep funds from Abu Dhabi sheikhs. United, Fergie whined, could no longer compete.
This from a man whose squad includes players such as Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov; there won’t have been much change for 90 million pound on that trio alone.
Then United missed out on a highly rated Brazilian player. You could imagine Fergie, ever the accomplished media conductor, preparing his lines before unleashing with both barrels. Surely FIFA, opined football’s own knighted one, to look at a situation where a football club was paying 45 million pound on a teenager.
Of course when United signed a certain Wayne Rooney from Everton for just shy of 30 million quid there was no mention of FIFA. Fergie was Sir Alex, he was manager of Manchester United and that’s what United did. They spent big because the market demanded it and their fans expected it.
Now the wealth has moved elsewhere, to City and Paris Saint Germain among others, Fergie is finding his new role of pleading poverty a tough one. United are no longer the club the big names automatically gravitate towards and, for Fergie, it hurts.
He is left chasing Robin van Persie. How galling it must be for the great man to have to resort to pleading with Arsene Wenger to sell last season’s top scorer. How frustrating to know that United’s best hope of a big name signing is a 29 year old with a history of injury problems and no resale value.
It remains to be seen whether the van Persie deal is done or not. But you can’t help but wonder whether, in an ideal world where United were still the top dogs, they would have put in so much effort on the Dutch striker.

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