English Premier League chief still has ‘burning desire’ to play competitive games in Asia – and says China will be a football superpower ahead of schedule
Richard Scudamore says clubs would love to play a round of fixtures internationally, but admits furious reaction at home might mean it never happens
The English Premier League’s Asia Trophy, back in Hong Kong this week, is as close a taste to the ‘real thing’ that many fans on this side of the globe can get.
But with the amount of money sloshing around China’s sports industry, can it be long before actual Premier League games are played in Hong Kong, Beijing, or Shanghai?
If it were up to the league’s executive chairman, Richard Scudamore, it would have happened long ago. He says his member clubs still want to play abroad, but a proposal to do so was lashed by media in 2014, as was a 2008 plan that a “39th game” of the season be played overseas.
“I still have the scars up and down my back,” he said of the fury with which the English media greeted the league’s proposal.
“Is there still a burning desire to do it? The clubs would like to,” he said in an interview with a small group of journalists in Hong Kong this week.
“But we are also realistic that until the fan reaction or the political reaction or the general media reaction is any more warm to it then it is not going to happen.
“And if it did happen it would never be a 39th game, it wouldn’t be an extra game.
“I think there would be a desire to still do a round of fixtures internationally but there is no prospect of it happening any time soon.
“I am a man of belief and I still believe it was a good idea – but I understand it is unacceptable right now.”
The Australian Football League played a well-received ‘proper’ domestic match in Shanghai in May, while America’s National Football League is considering opening the 2019 gridiron season in China to celebrate its 100th anniversary.
But for those who’d still like to pretend that English top-flight football is anything more than a business and marketing machine, the idea of abandoning ‘real’ fans in Manchester, Liverpool or London still rankles.
“I fully understand that those who’ve bought a season ticket and have turned up at Premier League grounds for the last 25 years and have been to every game, home and away, I do understand that those people deem themselves to be at the highest echelon of fan commitment,” added Scudamore.
“I get that and you can’t take that away from anybody.
“But also even those fans do realise – whether they like it or not – that now the Premier League and those clubs’ success are global. And that global success has come from the interest that other fans have.
“And that isn’t a patronising interest, it isn’t a false interest. The bit that always strikes a chord with you is how passionate these fans are, how knowledgeable they are.
“I’d put a lot of the people here up against anybody on a pub quiz back home in terms of knowledge of the clubs and the players.”
With 1.3 billion potential consumers, every league, team and even individual player wants to boost their ‘brand’ in the Middle Kingdom, though Scudamore insists the B-word never leaves his lips in relation to his organisation.
And with China investing massively in football in particular, Scudamore reckons the country can become a “football superpower” ahead of schedule.
“Clearly there is a commercial appeal to the Premier League, generally,” he said. “There is a commercial appeal to our clubs, specifically, and now ever more so the individual players themselves.
“There isn’t a business in the world, including ours, that hasn’t looked enviously at China and the opportunities it creates.
“But just as exciting for China I think is the commitment from President Xi all the way down. I think he set the target of being a world football power by 2050. I’d be very surprised if that wasn’t 2035.
“Most importantly they’re investing hugely in grassroots, in infrastructure and coaching. You can’t just come along and implement something at the top end. It’s unsustainable.”
Was the ‘39th game’ idea just about stimulating the debate, Scudamore was asked.
“No, I don’t play those kind of tricks,” he insisted. “I thought it was the right thing to do and I still do. I just think it would be an unbelievable thing to do but it’s not going to happen.”
And what if La Liga, Serie A or the Bundesliga do it first?
“That would be great. We don’t need to be first – sometimes it’s not good to be the first.”