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Friendlies in firing line... are pre-season ties just kickabouts?

Spanish giants Barcelona play Celtic in Dublin today, but are the supporters getting their money's worth, asks Ed Power

Published 30/07/2016

Star man: Lionel Messi is set to play some part against Celtic at the Aviva Stadium today
Star man: Lionel Messi is set to play some part against Celtic at the Aviva Stadium today
Astonishing achievement: Leicester captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the Premier League trophy at the end of last season
Head Bhoy: Celtic’s Scott Brown

A little before 6pm this evening, one of the world's greatest living sportsmen will step on to the humble green sward of the Aviva Stadium. Lionel Messi is due to lead Barcelona against Celtic in a greatly-hyped friendly - two historic giants of the European game clashing before what is likely to be a respectable attendance (if not quite an actual sell-out).

But while the meeting of Barcelona and Celtic may appear mouth-watering on paper, the reality is that for Messi and other players, the International Champions Cup clash in Dublin amounts to nothing more than a glorified kick-about.

Both sides travel without key first-teamers (up to 17 of the Barcelona squad are confirmed absent) and, though the FAI has insisted Messi will feature, it is unthinkable he will play the entire 90 minutes.

Why would Barcelona risk their star in a zero-stakes encounter, the result of which is likely to be forgotten by all involved within minutes of the final whistle?

Meaningless friendlies are the new currency of the global game. As the big European leagues count down to the start of the season, clubs are criss-crossing the globe to raise the profile of their "brand". And, amid the photo opportunities and merchandising frenzies, what happens on the pitch can often seem an afterthought.

Certainly, fans paying up to £65 a ticket - the asking price for the best seats in the Aviva today - risk being underwhelmed. The Bayern Munich team that lined out against AC Milan at Chicago's Soldier Field on Wednesday were, for instance, without their (many) German internationals, still recovering from their exertions at Euro 2016. This was more Bayern Lite than the real thing.

In China, meanwhile, new Manchester United and Manchester City managers Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola have been cooling their heels after their "tours" of the Far East took a turn for the surreal, with a friendly between the rivals called off with six hours' notice after a treacherous downpour at Beijing's Bird's Nest stadium (the match, in any event, was far from a sell-out).

Both clubs had made a 10,000-mile round trip for naught, with the new season just a little over a fortnight off. The game was part of the same International Champions Cup that brings Barcelona and Celtic to Dublin.

Players and managers are often lukewarm about "glamour" friendlies, which they understandably regard as a needless distraction played time zones away and typically in front of fans whose idea of supporting a team boils down to purchasing merchandise and trading reheated punditry with work colleagues.

However, as the top tier of sides vie to establish a global presence, these fixtures are perceived as a crucial way of growing market share - so on the circus must roll.

With clubs at the level of Manchester United and Liverpool (who this week played Chelsea at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles), charging $1m per appearance, the financial imperatives are clear too. Those Paul Pogba transfer fees don't pay themselves.

That overseas friendlies are about razzmatazz rather than preparing for the sporting challenges around the corner is indisputable when you consider that 12 months ago, the then obscure Leicester City were looking forward to a pre-season showdown with Rotherham United. This was before Leicester's unlikely Premier League title win brought them to global prominence. In 2016, in contrast, they are in California for a clash with cash-rich French giants Paris Saint-Germain.

Winning the Premier League means Leicester are now competing for merchandise sales from Mayo to Malaysia - an elevation which requires them to puff out their chest and sell themselves to armchair supporters who believe sport is best consumed from a La-Z-Boy, with a beer to hand.

"The Premier League is a global league," says John Fennessy, of sports marketing agency Sway.

"One of the main motivators is really just in terms of attracting the sponsors from overseas markets where there is a huge audience.

"Look at where Manchester United are doing their tours - they'll always have an active fanbase in the region already. You go to China, Indonesia, any of those places. They have fantastic TV coverage out there. Everton are sponsored by Chang - which is the national beer in Thailand and not necessarily widely available in this part of the world."

If pre-season friendlies are marketing opportunities for clubs, what's in it for fans? Occasionally, these games represent a meaningful chance to see new signings have their first run-out. But often they are little more than an occasion to observe second-string players go through the motions (Neymar and Jordi Alba will, for example, be among the Barcelona regulars absent from Dublin today). Indeed, these events can, occasionally, take a turn for the farcical.

Thus, when 7,000 turned up at Dunmanway in west Cork to see the local amateur side play Liverpool XI selection in 2009, there was disappointment that the visitors' starting 11 turned out to be made up of youth and reserve players.

"I don't think Barcelona have played in Ireland for many years - so it's certainly not irrelevant," says Shamrock Rovers marketing manager Mark Lynch.

"But it can be an odd combination - you may end up going into the potential realm of ridiculousness where you have two teams not really playing their best players and putting it out as a premium club tournament when, if you look at their selections, it is probably far from that."

Still, the game is now as much about audience share as trophies. For as long as Real Madrid, Bayern Munich etc are campaigning to win new overseas fans, friendlies such as this evening's at the Aviva will continue.

"Wherever you have that active fanbase, you are also going to have sponsorship interest. Wherever the audience is, the brand will soon follow," says Fennessy.

"It is a smart strategy in terms of you are going over and playing these games and giving fans the chance to experience a live event."

And if these encounters are often not played at full tilt, clubs do use them to blood new signings, he says.

"If you look at the Man United tour - they've got a lot of their great players. I remember seeing Ronaldo against Shamrock Rovers - what a great opportunity to see a brand new signing.

"When you see your team play, you want the best players. If there was nobody from the first team, that wouldn't work. I don't think that is the case. Teams are smarter than that."

Belfast Telegraph

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