Premier League pre-season globe-trotting is tour of duty
Top-flight has become a global brand via TV – but nothing builds fan bases – or swells the coffers – like a 17,000-mile summer tour
Arsène Wenger recently declared that his club's pre-season tour of Malaysia, China and Germany was a "compromise" to commercialism. "We had a rational, methodical approach to our pre-season," Wenger declared. "We have sacrificed some of that."
Robin van Persie has also played his part in damaging that immaculate Wenger methodology, though judging by the club's 17,000 miles of travel on the adventure they are about to embark upon, Wenger has come a very long way from his former disinclination to put the Arsenal brand before preparations for the new season.
Arsenal first broke with tradition to travel far last year and this year's tour would have been even longer, had not a detour to the Abuja National Stadium in Nigeria's federal capital territory been cancelled because of the state of the pitch.
"We are in a race with the other clubs as well," Wenger acknowledged this month when he discussed how clubs' global incomes are the overriding pre-season consideration now.
Manchester United's extraordinary 22,000-mile tour, across three continents, bears out that point, with the club's owners only perhaps ruing the fact that they had already put their plans in place for South Africa, China, Norway, Sweden and Germany before the decision to float the club on the New York Stock Exchange. A repeat of last summer's tour to the United States would have been useful but United can hardly be accused of failing to maximise their name, travelling further than any other Premier League side.
Every club in the top flight is chasing the same global recognition. Fulham joined the party late this week by announcing a trip to Germany: the 20 elite clubs' tours of duty will collectively rack up 180,000 air miles. For many clubs, the destination is linked to ownership: Liverpool arrive at Fenway Park, the Boston back yard of their owners Fenway Sports Group, to face Roma on 25 July.
"There's no pressure! Not in a pre-season game!" the Liverpool manager, Brendan Rodgers, said, with a grin, yesterday – though Mark Hughes can tell him that his Manchester City side's defeat by an Abu Dhabi XI in the emirate a few seasons back didn't help him greatly. Hughes is back in that boat, on Malaysian turf with his Queen's Park Rangers squad, under the watchful eye of his proprietor Tony Fernandes. The new Aston Villa manager, Paul Lambert finds himself on owner Randy Lerner's American home turf.
The best-laid plans don't always work out. Sunderland's trip to South Korea – 12,000 air miles to play in the Peace Cup – seemed like an excellent way of building on the cult popularity of their striker Ji Dong-won, until he pulled having been named in South Korea's Olympics squad.
City are seeking to capitalise on their Premier League title to capture the imagination of fans in Beijing and Kuala Lumpur – and will travel more than 14,000 miles to do so, with the enticing prospect of them facing Arsenal and Van Persie in Beijing, on 27 July. City will hope to have signed the Dutchman by then.
City spent last summer trying to build awareness in the US, though they will leave that territory to Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur this time. Chelsea's four-stop tour of the States will see them fly 12,700 miles.
In all, six clubs are heading east to Asia – including Everton, who are unbowed by their recent struggles to get a good start to league campaigns and will go to Indonesia. Six go to America. More unexpected are the American tours of Stoke and Swansea, something unthinkable just a few years ago.