China missing out this summer as English Premier League and La Liga giants head to the US for pre-season

Thousands of fans flock to Russia for World Cup in search of top-class soccer as big clubs shun mainland for International Champions Cup Stateside

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2018, 8:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2018, 8:00am

The summer is usually the time that Chinee football fans get to see top-class European football on their turf. Not this year. Most clubs are shunning the mainland and heading to the US instead, forcing Chinese fans to travel to seek out big names and big games.

The World Cup in Russia looms on the horizon for soccer fans the world over and China is no different. Reports have emerged from the host nation that Chinese fans will outnumber the English in Russia this summer, no mean feat considering China have not qualified while England have.

While almost 37,000 tickets have been bought by Chinese fans, a little over 30,000 tickets have been sold in England with the World Cup weeks away. Russia’s Sputnik news reports that a total of 100,000 visitors from China are expected during the month-long tournament.

It’s clear that the appetite for top-level football is growing in China but that is not enough. Most major European clubs will be missing the mainland from their pre- and post-season itineraries as they look to make their annual forays into football’s emerging markets and expanding their commercial interests.

Despite the fact that the World Cup is a massive disruption to next season for club managers whose players make it to the later stages, several big-name clubs will play in the International Champions Cup, a multi-location pre-season tournament that has taken place across North America, Asia, Europe and Australia over the last few summers. This year, but for three games in Singapore, it will be played in Europe and the US.

The ICC, which officially announced its programme for 2018 earlier in the week, has lost none of its lustre. The lure of the lucre proving enough to get European giants to sign up. Their big games include Manchester United vs Liverpool in Michigan, which could see a record crowd based on United meeting Real Madrid at the same venue in the summer of the last World Cup, and Bayern Munich vs English Premier League champions Manchester City in Miami. There’s also time for a United vs Real rematch there at the end of July.

What are noticeable by their absence this year are fixtures in China. The ICC has staged matches on the mainland for the last couple of years. Last summer AC Milan, Borussia Dortmund, Arsenal, Inter Milan and Lyon featured in four games in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Nanjing. The summer before, Dortmund were joined by both Manchester clubs for games in Shenzhen and Shanghai, although the first Manchester derby scheduled for outside England was cancelled after the pitch at Beijing’s National Stadium was deemed unplayable.

It’s no surprise that the honour went to the US, with the groundbreaking derby played in Houston, Texas, last summer.

Much as the ICC has become the pre-eminent pre-season promotion, the US appears to have become the destination of choice. That’s understandable for many reasons, including the US being expected to have the most fans at Russia 2018 after the hosts despite not qualifying.

Since it began in 2013 with only US locations, it expanded to include a Canadian stadium a summer later and then in 2015 it included Europe, Australia and China. That first year saw Real Madrid and both Milan sides meet in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Even Hong Kong, which hosted Spurs and then the Premier League Trophy last summer, is missing out.

It’s not all bad news for Chinese fans, though.

The French league has agreed for the Trophée des Champions to be played in China for the first time. Shenzhen will play host to Paris St Germain and whoever.

This is a return to the mainland for the trophy, which was played in Beijing’s Workers’ Stadium in 2014.

The hosting of Super Cups in China was done first by the Italians in Beijing in 2009 where they returned in 2011 and 2012 before playing in Shanghai in 2015.

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The other three of Europe’s big five leagues – Germany’s Bundesliga, England’s Premier League and Spain’s La Liga – have not yet staged a supercup overseas but the Premier League did discuss the idea of a 39th game overseas, and the Spanish are set to beat them to the punch and looking to do so in Asia.

While that remains to be seen, Sporting Lisbon have confirmed their own China tour before the end of May, which will take in games in Beijing, Shanghai and Macau.

Another team full of Portuguese stars are confirmed to be in China at some point for a promotional tour. Wolves chairman Jeff Shi said last month that if the Fosun-owned side gained promotion to the Premier League then they would travel to the mainland this summer.

The growing number of Chinese-owned clubs in Europe means that more may be making their way to the mainland once the season is done.

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This summer marks 40 years since West Brom became the first team from a major European league to tour in China and 35 since Watford did the same, to the piano accompaniment of then chairman Elton John no less.

It’s Chinese football fans who’ll have time on their hands this summer.