Despite City and United’s woes, lucrative trips to China aren’t going to stop any time soon

Tour descended into farce, but cash is still king in the Middle Kingdom

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 July, 2016, 4:47pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 August, 2016, 7:41am

“It was a nightmare, I hated it,” said the English football team’s manager of his club’s trip to China. “It was long trip, three weeks going on 10 years.”

No, not Jose Mourinho or Pep Guardiola, but Big Ron Atkinson, looking back on West Bromwich Albion’s trip to the mysterious Middle Kingdom in 1978.

To be fair, it seems that West Brom’s biggest problem as China prepared to reform and open up was difficulty in getting hold of beer, an essential requirement for the British footballer in the pre-Arsene Wenger days.

WATCH: West Brom in China

West Brom were briefed by the Foreign Office and treated as important ambassadors. Five years later, Watford – with chairman Elton John on board – followed in their footsteps, a trip chronicled amusingly by novelist Martin Amis in his book of essays Visiting Mrs Nabokov. They were treated with similar diplomatic gravitas by their hosts, although fans at the Workers’ Stadium booed Watford’s black players as China’s national team were thrashed 5-1.

Both teams were relieved to get back home. “But, looking back, it was a memorable trip because it was ground-breaking. A wonderful experience,” Baggies captain John Wile told the Birmingham Mail in 2012.

Fast forward nearly four decades and the football tour is no longer an opportunity to extend the hand of friendship over the bamboo curtain, but a prime opportunity to flog as much merch as possible and “enhance the brand”. Given the assorted calamities that befell the millionaires of Manchester City and United in China last week, you get the feeling those bygone-era tours might actually have been better organised.

United were back home by midweek after a trip that led to words like “shambles” and “farce” being thrown around by the English newspaper correspondents counting themselves unlucky to be in China while colleagues are covering Liverpool and Chelsea in California and Michigan.

One of United’s planes was ‘lost’ after an unscheduled landing in Tianjin on the way from Shanghai to Beijing – a peril familiar to anyone who’s had the misfortune to travel by air in China. Mourinho, in a fit of pique, then conducted a bizarre press conference on a running track after declaring a hot and stuffy media room unsafe for himself and the press (one suspects he cared more about the former).

Capping it all, United v City was called off hours before kick-off because of a comically bad pitch at the Bird’s Nest Stadium. Tough luck for fans who’d travelled from provinces far and wide for the ‘historic’ derby and are now left trying to figure out how to get their tickets – which went for prices as high as HK$1500 – refunded.

No wonder Guardiola, who had the pleasure of staying a bit longer in China as City took on Borussia Dortmund in the baking heat in Shenzhen on Thursday, was not best pleased.

“The pitch was unacceptable,” he said. “We don’t travel to China just for a holiday or for a training session.

“I think it was the first time we cancelled a game so maybe it was a lesson for the people who organise it. For them, the pitch doesn’t matter and the pitch is the most important thing.

“Nobody took care of it ... the people here who didn’t think it mattered about the pitch and the situation for the players.”

In the grand scheme of things, the cancellation of a meaningless friendly whose only purpose is to make the already rich slightly richer is of zero importance. But with China declaring its aim to become both a soccer superpower, and a titan of sports industry, it was an embarrassing reminder of how much some people and companies there still have to learn. Perhaps it was not surprising that LeSports – until very recently a company focused on making gadgets, with no interest in sport – was one of the organisers.

At least the most important people at both clubs, the marketing men, will have been happy: United launched their new kit at a bombastic event in Shanghai, and City got plenty of pics of theirs as they unveiled it at the Great Wall. No word on whether Sergio Aguero emulated the great wit and wisdom of West Brom’s John Trewick in ’78: “Impressive, isn’t it? But once you’ve seen one wall, you’ve seen them all!”

For despite all the woes, they’ll be back – cash is king in the Middle Kingdom.