That Liverpool FC have travelled nearly 10,000 kilometres to play in the FIFA Club World Championship in Japan is not just about adding the title of global champions to their European crown; it also represents an opportunity to pursue a more intangible, but perhaps even more coveted prize.
In recent years capturing the Asian market has become a holy grail for Europe's leading clubs. The attraction is obvious: Asia is the most populous continent, much of it is either already wealthy or, like China, in the midst of a boom, and satellite television has spread the word about European football.
Liverpool, indeed, will be pleased from that point of view that the current tournament is in Japan, as they had to cancel a planned two-game friendly tour there this July due to their unexpected participation in the UEFA Champions League qualifying rounds - something which caused considerable disappointment. The Reds picked up a huge Japanese fan base in their original era of European Champion Clubs' Cup dominance, when western football was first shown in that nation. Chief executive Rick Parry said: "
We are conscious of the fact that we have a huge fan base in Asia. We toured here in 2001 and 2003 and the players were impressed with the warmth of the welcome and depth of our support."
While Liverpool's current trip is for a competitive purpose, there is no doubt that there is money to be made in the Far East, with fans eagerly attaching themselves to European clubs and star individuals such as David Beckham and Ronaldo. Summer tours and exhibition tournaments in Asia are now an established part of the European pre-season.
'Grown every year'
Japanese journalist Atsushi Nakayama told uefa.com: "It started [in earnest] in the mid '90s on the satellite channels. But, because the European/South American Cup was played in Japan, there was always interest in the European Cup. It has grown every year. With the number of games shown on TV now increased, there is virtually no one who doesn't know the UEFA Champions League among football fans. "
Top Asian players joining European clubs has helped with this. Witness the huge Chinese television audiences when their nationals play for the likes of Manchester City FC or Everton FC, or the Japanese journalists who turn up en masse to follow their players even when they are restricted to reserve football, and, as Nakayama adds: "They certainly have helped to increase the name value of the UEFA Cup. Shinji Ono, Hidetoshi Nakata, Koji Nakata and Naohiro Takahara have all played in the competition this season."
Of course the Asian market will only truly be of lasting benefit to European clubs if they lay down roots, rather than attempting to cash in swiftly - as seen when some tours this summer attracted surprisingly low crowds. The increasingly knowledgable fans are no longer happy to turn up just to see their heroes in the flesh, feeling the friendly games do not compare to the competitive UEFA Champions League fixtures they see on television.
FC Bayern München are adopting a long-term strategy with the appointment of journalist Martin Hägele as head of international affairs. Hägele, well known and connected in Japan through numerous reporting trips there, travels east virtually every month and is clear about what Bayern are hoping to achieve.
"Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and general manager Uli Hoeness have a clear vision," Hägele told uefa.com. "They want to become the best club in the world. So, we also have to become a highly regarded brand in Asia. Many clubs in Europe regard the Asian market as a cow to milk but not to feed. But the people in Asia only build up confidence and trust very slowly. We want to have partnerships in which both sides give and take. We do not go to Asia in order to just sell our shirts. We go there in order to arrange friendships and serious partnerships."
He added: "
I am convinced that the Asian market is not sated. The market over there is huge. And it is open for everybody who acts appropriately. On the one hand, they can learn from us how to organise and structure a club and how to coach young players. On the other hand, we profit by establishing our name and our brand over there."
That is the key: clubs know their supporters at home will stick by them through thick and thin, otherwise their future would be bleak. If they can attract similar loyalty from fans thousands of kilometres away, the financial rewards will be huge. In the modern game, that is nothing to be bashful about.
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