Spanish La Liga

FC Barcelona could play La Liga game in China says CEO Oscar Grau as club expand in Asia

  • Match would be ‘good for brand’ and ‘reach more fans for sponsors, TV rights’
  • Club chief predicts Barca will have Asian first-team starter in 10 years
PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 2:53pm
UPDATED : Friday, 23 November, 2018, 2:53pm

When Spanish La Liga leaders Barcelona take on third-placed Atletico Madrid this weekend it will be Saturday evening in Spain and early Sunday morning in Asia. But Barca fans may not have to stay up so late for too much longer, according to club CEO Oscar Grau.

Last season Barcelona and Real Madrid kicked off at lunchtime in Spain and it attracted six times the usual audience in Asia.

“La Liga put the hour of the matches, that’s why we play earlier at 1pm in Madrid,” Grau said. “It never happened before in Spain but we are thinking globally. New markets, new territories, we have to adapt.

“It’s not a problem for us the change of hours. It’s just a habit. We prefer we have a good audience.”

Six times the viewers speaks for itself and this weekend Real Madrid play Eibar at lunchtime, prime time in Asia.

Are Barcelona outperforming their great rivals in China? “I’m sure,” Grau said, laughing.

He sees a day they might do that on the pitch in China as La Liga look to stage games overseas like the NBA and NFL.

Both Barcelona and Girona have agreed to play in Miami, Grau said, although he conceded that game looks unlikely right now amid opposition from the Spanish Federation and Fifa.

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“I think this year will be difficult. If we have more time …” he said. “If the opportunity for one match in the US then why not in China in the future?

“Since the beginning Barcelona supported this project. It’s good for the brand of La Liga, for the brand of Barca. We can reach more fans, for potential sponsors, for the potential TV rights.

“It’s just one match from 380. We can accept it. But since the first minute, we say, we need to do it in harmony. We need all the stakeholders to agree on the proposal.”

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In the meantime their fans will get to see Barcelona play in Japan and China next summer. The Spanish club will face the J-League’s Vissel Kobe, a side owned by Barca sponsor Rakuten and home to Barca legend Andres Iniesta.

The plan for China is not yet set but Grau said they are looking for two games and where to hold training sessions as they know the fans want to see their stars.

Lionel Messi is the biggest draw and a large factor in why Barcelona have so many followers in China. Are the club prepared for a day without the five-time Ballon d’Or winner?

“Barcelona has 119 years of history, and always have very famous players,” Grau said. “[Laszlo] Kubala, [Johan] Cruyff, [Diego] Maradona and now Messi who is the best in all history of football. It will be difficult to have a new Messi.

“If they came from La Masia, it is our dream. They started with us for eight years, finally they play in the first team, finally they win the Ballon d’Or.”

The 54-year-old played handball for Barcelona and was in charge of the club’s soccer schools before becoming CEO. He led the football school’s expansion into Asia, introducing them to China, Japan, India, Singapore and Australia.

“I am confident that all the work in our academies can have a result. In 10 years I think we can have players from Asia in the Barca team.”

“In the first team we know it’s difficult but why not? I think our style of playing helps, that any citizen of every country can play in Barcelona.”

What if one of those was a citizen of China? “It will help,” Grau said. “I’m sure the audience will be higher and it will help the sponsor to be closer. We will see.”

Such a player could come from one of Barcelona’s academies across the country, of which there will be six by 2020.

“We want to help to develop football in China,” Grau said of the plans driven out of the club’s Hong Kong headquarters.

“All our academies, the coaches came from Barcelona. They try to teach the values and methodology. It’s not just a franchise.

“Values is one of the key points that Barcelona tries to teach our kids. We talk about humility, effort, ambition, respect and teamwork. And, of course, to play with the ball.”

For Barcelona, this is a long-term project. “We don’t just want to arrive, to make a business and to leave,” Grau said.

Aside from football training, fan engagement is also key, hence the opening of the Barcelona Experience at Mission Hills in Haikou, Hainan.

This is the first time Barcelona have had “the territory of Barca in China” where fans can visit a museum and club shop, the first such centre anywhere outside the Catalan city.

He sees the club’s biggest opportunities in Asia in streaming, television rights and fan engagement. “Where we can grow more is in the digital content,” Grau said. “What can we do with our fans? It’s not only the game.”

Even with 320 million supporters around the world and the biggest budget in sport – “more than the NFL and NBA clubs” – success for Grau still comes on the pitch.

“We have the biggest stadium, we have the biggest stars, we play the style of play that everyone wants to see,” he said.

“Not only to win but playing our style. People in our stadium they want to win but not 1-0, they prefer to win 6-4.”