Jason Dasey

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 July, 2009, 12:00am

Their trips are a blur of people and places as they arrive in the morning, practice in the afternoon, play the next day and get the evening flight out.

As the stopwatch ticks, European football clubs try to make as much money in the shortest possible time on their pre-season tours of Asia. Of course, the official message is that the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Inter Milan are selflessly giving back to distant fans by travelling halfway across the world to take part in matches against local opposition.

But the reality is that these kind of money-spinning visits, while arguably damaging local leagues, have become a crucial revenue stream to help pay the inflated salaries of the game's superstars.

Manchester United were planning to spend less than 36 hours on the ground in Kuala Lumpur after arriving at lunchtime on Friday, with tickets to fly out last night after a game against a Malaysia XI. But after Friday's bomb blasts saw the cancellation of their trip to Jakarta, the Red Devils extended their stay, re-arranging their game against the Indonesia All-Stars for tomorrow night in Kuala Lumpur before heading off to South Korea and China later in the week.

Even though they lack the intensity of the English Premier League (EPL), these powder-puff exhibition games are neatly packaged and sold for a sizeable fee to regional TV broadcasters.

Local supporters save up to buy ticket packages that can also include access to training and 'meet and greet' sessions with selected players.

'Our fans in Asia generate money for the club - there are no two ways about it,' admitted Manchester United chief executive David Gill.

For the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), it's a situation that can bring mixed blessings. While the tours get the masses excited about the beautiful game, they contribute to a disturbing statistic which estimates that 61 per cent of all football-related revenue across Asia ends up in the pockets of the English Premier League. This represents a substantial amount from EPL merchandise, including replica shirt sales.

Ironically, last night's Manchester United game at the National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur took place just a couple of kilometres from the regional seat of power, AFC House.

'Not all clubs look beyond the money, that is for sure,' said AFC president Mohamed Bin Hammam. 'EPL clubs need to leave behind a legacy for all to see and benefit from ... not necessarily money, but technical assistance, coach and youth team exchange programmes and so on.'

Liverpool will arrive in Bangkok tomorrow with an itinerary which is more relaxed than that of their arch-rivals.

The Reds will play just two matches during the week - against Thailand on Wednesday and Singapore next Sunday.

They'll even find time for a leisurely cruise along the Singapore River next Saturday to greet fans. According to organiser Paul Masefield, the Liverpool tour is less about finances and more about upholding the club's rich traditions and building relationships.

Manager Rafa Benitez will hold closed-door sessions with Singapore and Thai coaches as part of a football, commercial and medical exchange. 'It's very difficult to make money now because of hotel, transport and security expenses so as long as we break even, we'll be happy,' Masefield said. 'Maybe some past Asian tours were only for commercial reasons, but Liverpool genuinely want to give something back.'

While both Liverpool and Manchester United are playing to packed houses, other EPL clubs are struggling to generate the same kind of interest on their Asian jaunts. According to reports, less than one-fifth of tickets have been sold at Beijing's Workers Stadium for the Barclays Asia Trophy on July 29 and 31 involving Tottenham, West Ham, Hull and Beijing Guoan. Sales are also sluggish for the all-Italian match between Inter Milan and Lazio at the Bird's Nest Stadium on August 8, to mark the first anniversary of the Beijing Olympics.

And the ultimate slap in the face for the premiership's lesser lights came earlier this month in Australia where Fulham suffered a humiliating 2-1 defeat to A-League expansion club Gold Coast United, and then were victims of an acerbic comment from Gold Coast captain Jason Culina. Culina, who has returned home after playing several seasons with PSV Eindhoven, dismissed the visitors' claims that facing the Cottagers was like a Cup final, with: 'I think the boys would be a lot happier if we got to play against Manchester United or Arsenal or something ... but Fulham, yeah, big deal.'

Indeed, in the case of some of England's bottom feeders looking to make a quick, pre-season buck offshore, you'd probably close the living room curtains if they were playing in your own front garden.

And even for Europe's biggest brands, the medium-term financial future mightn't be so rosy. With Asian football getting better every year - and with the issue of terrorist attacks in some regions, sadly, re-emerging - this gravy train may soon be grinding to a halt.