European football clubs are missing an opportunity to truly gain a foothold in the U.S. with lacklustre summer tours
The International Champions Cup attendances are down this year as American audiences wise up to the exhibition nature of the ‘tournament’
The gods of European football have been spreading the gospel of the beautiful game across the United States for years now, ending summer vacations for pre-season training camps and a series of tune-ups that often carry the intensity of a beginner’s yoga session.
On the surface, these games are blockbusters, the type of pairings usually featured in the late stages of the Uefa Champions League.
Real Madrid v Juventus! Bayern Munich v Manchester City! Barcelona v Manchester United!
In an effort to convey seriousness, promoters affix an official-sounding name, the International Champions Cup.
Halfhearted Soccer and All-Out Marketing Cup didn’t have the same catchy ring.
Despite the casual nature and sub-par fitness, the tour has been an annual success at the box office because of the global brands and superstars involved. But while interest remains high in several markets, visiting clubs and their corresponding leagues should begin showing greater respect for the increasingly important and sophisticated American market by playing games that matter.
Ditch these friendlies littered with some 10 substitutions per team and 60-minute efforts by marquee names (if they are even part of the travelling squad).
Agree to play a league match, or maybe a domestic cup game, at a US venue. The pre-season schedule would remain the same, but instead of going home for the start of the season, play the opener here. If the tradition of the opening weekend outweighs such ventures, consider visiting Miami or Los Angeles in the heart of a European winter.
For years, North American sports leagues have gone abroad to stage games that matter.
If last year the reigning Super Bowl champions New England Patriots were amenable to one of 16 regular season games in Mexico City and this fall the current champions Philadelphia Eagles are willing to play in London, is it asking too much to bring Arsenal across the pond for one of 38 Premier League matches? (Like several prominent European clubs, the Gunners’ largest shareholder is an American; in their case, it’s Stan Kroenke.)
Since first going overseas in 2005, the NFL has played 30 official games in either London or Mexico City. There will be four more this fall.
Since 1996, Major League Baseball has scheduled 17 games abroad, including a three-game series this season between the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers in Monterrey, Mexico. Next year, the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners will square off in Tokyo and the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees – the premier rivalry in US pro sports – will meet at Wembley Stadium in London.
The NBA has been playing competitive basketball on foreign courts since 1990. Last season, the Brooklyn Nets made two regular season appearances in Mexico City and the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers tipped off in London.
The NHL has taken regular season games to London, Prague, Stockholm, Helsinki and Berlin. The Florida Panthers and Winnipeg Jets will face off twice in November in Helsinki.
Just as there is a noticeable difference in quality and intensity between NFL pre-season and regular season games, these international soccer matches are not close to the same as official competitions.
After a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool before 101,000 at Michigan Stadium last week, Manchester United Manager Jose Mourinho was asked about the scene.
“The atmosphere was good, but if I was them, I wouldn’t come. I wouldn’t spend my money to see these teams.”
But people do come to see the teams, the colours, the crest, the players – even if they’re not getting a complete performance.
This summer’s numbers have not been as large as in past years, however. Roma and Tottenham Hotspur drew just 18,000 in San Diego, and Bayern Munich and Manchester City failed to crack 30,000 in Miami. Part of the reason was the absence of resting players from national teams that advanced beyond the group stage of the World Cup. But perhaps part of it is because the public is wising up to what these games really are: exhibitions.
Real Madrid’s 3-1 victory over Juventus on Saturday before an announced crowd of 71,597 at FedEx Field lacked France’s Raphael Varane, Croatia’s Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic, and Brazil’s Marcelo and Casemiro. Juventus arrived without Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal), Paulo Dybala (Argentina), Juan Cuadrado (Colombia), Rodrigo Bentancur (Uruguay), Douglas Costa (Brazil), Mario Mandzukic (Croatia), Marko Pjaca (Croatia) and Blaise Matuidi (France).
Real, who have won three consecutive Champions League titles, made five substitutions at half-time and nine overall. Juventus, the seven-time Italian Serie A winners, changed six players in the second half.
The Italians went ahead in the 12th minute through an own goal, but Real responded with three goals in 17 minutes before half-time. Gareth Bale tied it with a wonderful strike from 22 yards, and Marco Asensio finished a 47th-minute cross by Vinicius Junior (an 18-year-old newcomer from Brazil) and lashed home another in the 56th minute.
The pro-Real crowd seemed to enjoy itself, breaking into the Icelandic ”thunder clap” and a Mexican wave during slow moments, including water breaks on a hot day. On multiple occasions, fans invaded the pitch; two gained extended face time with a player before slow-reacting security arrived.
A solo “DC United” chant broke the late silence. A serenade for Asensio followed.
Around the 85th minute, spectators began heading for the exits.
If the match had meant anything, maybe they would have stuck around until the end.