Fans can't help falling in love with EPL giants

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 31 July, 2011, 12:00am

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Hong Kong's unabated love affair with English football was in full swing this week. Maybe it was the rare experience of being exposed to top-quality football or perhaps it was the heat making them a bit crazy, but either way fans were turbo-charged and particularly festive when the Barclays Asia Trophy rolled into town.

Almost everything English Premier League power Chelsea did was cause for great cheer. 'But there are more than a few fans of Villa here as well,' said Hong Kong native Ronald Kwok, who proudly wore the claret and blue Villa kit. 'Not everybody in Hong Kong roots for the super clubs.'

Well, maybe not everybody does, but it certainly seems that. Hong Kong stadium was almost uniformly bedecked in Chelsea Blue on Wednesday night and again last night. Try as I might, I could not find one of Kitchee's distinctive pink strips anywhere in the crowd. They may be champions of Hong Kong, but they were hardly the home team in their clash with Chelsea and last night against Blackburn.

The biennial competition was played for the first time in Hong Kong in 2007, and this year marked a triumphant return after a less than stellar reception in Beijing in 2009. Mainland fans barely filled 10,000 of the 66,000 seats in the Workers' Stadium for the final between Tottenham Hotspur and Hull City two years ago.

'The experience in Beijing was still good because we were breaking very new ground at the time,' EPL chief executive Richard Scudamore said this week. 'It was a challenge logistically and quite a different experience, but you have to go and try these things. It will happen over time in mainland China and there is undoubtedly a learning curve.'

Hong Kong is clearly a different animal. 'It's a very mature and knowledgeable fan base here in Hong Kong,' Scudamore said. 'The interest has already been built so it is obviously easier to fill the stadium and sell tickets. The local Hong Kong FA work well with us as and are used to putting on these type of events.'

Since assuming office in 1999, Scudamore has been instrumental in taking the EPL to lofty heights internationally. Looking to cash in on their unmatched global popularity, in 2008 Scudamore proposed adding a 39th game to the schedule for all 20 teams, to be played overseas in diverse locales like Miami, Sydney, Shanghai, Bangkok, Beijing and Hong Kong. The reaction from domestic media and foreign associations was fast and furious.

'Scudamore is a clever businessman who appeals to the lowest common denominator - the greed of foreign investors willing to buy into our clubs and make a financial killing without a thought for the long-term ramifications,' wrote Steven Howard in The Sun.

Clearly unafraid to try new ventures, Scudamore admitted the idea never gained traction. 'The reaction at home was so negative that the idea is really no longer on our agenda,' he admitted. 'We do the pre-season tours and we do them well and these days, with newer broadcast technology, like high-def and 3D, the experience via television of our matches is much more compelling.'

The top European teams have been making a tidy little summer profit for years out in Asia, much to the dismay of people like former Asian Football Confederation general secretary Peter Velappan, who often claimed teams only take money and leave little behind in terms of football legacy. According to Scudamore, those days are gone, at least as far as the EPL is concerned.

'I can only talk for Premier League organised tours,' he said. 'I know some European clubs have done tours themselves and that there was occasionally some backlash. But there is a big separation between what clubs do and what leagues do. We only got into this on the basis that we would do things differently. We insist that clubs come with their full squad and that is why we only do this every two years. We don't do it during World Cup or European championships because they can't come with a full squad then.'

Scudamore also claimed the EPL was asking players and clubs to do more with local football groups during these tournaments and cited coaching and refereeing clinics as well as charitable donations and community days this week as proof.

Scudamore watched with interest this week as American football's NFL finally ended a 132-day lockout, while basketball's NBA is still closed for business. Needless to say, he was grateful for his league's labour peace. 'We have a different form of collective bargaining with our players, and it's much less onerous than those other leagues have,' he said.

'The collective bargaining with the NFL and the NBA, I have seen those documents and they would easily fill a large room. It's a very complex situation, whereas we seem to have much more benign relationship with our players union because we don't have a centralised agreement on how much collective revenue is put aside for the salary pot.'

The support for Chelsea in Hong Kong seemed to know no bounds, with one banner proclaiming 'Mongolia True Blues.' There were also banners for Canadian and Australian fan clubs, and all joined in on the largest cheers of the evening for Chelsea striker Fernando Torres. Since his GBP50 million (HK$636 million) move from Liverpool to Chelsea earlier this year, the Spanish star has only scored once in 21 matches and his lacklustre form continued during his non-descript performance in Hong Kong.

Fans cheered his every move all the same because from Ulan Bator to Melbourne and all points in between, there seems to be nothing but love for the heroes of English football.