Football hasn’t had a break this year. Soon after the domestic regular seasons ended, the planet was struck with World Cup fever. And less than a week after the month-long extravaganza, Europe’s biggest clubs jetted across the globe to play pre-season fixtures – an annual exercise to get players back to peak fitness and for teams to try out new formations and tactics and build chemistry ahead of the regular season.
Such pre-season matches used to be against minnows, as the clubs didn’t want them to get too competitive. But that changed at the turn of the century with the emergence of pre-season tournaments, such as the International Champions Cup. Today, pre-season tours are the norm.
But in a year where nearly all the world’s biggest stars – or at least the clubs’ biggest stars – were serving in Russia and on a break after, what purpose does the pre-season practice serve?
Eighteen of Europe’s top clubs took part in the International Champions Cup 2018 that covered the US, Europe and Singapore – six from England (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur), four from Italy (AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus), three from (Atletico Madrid, Barcelona, Real Madrid), two each from France (Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain) and Germany (Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund) and one from Portugal (Benfica).
Each of these teams had heavy representation at the World Cup, and, naturally, those players were excluded from their teams’ pre-season plans. Nine clubs at the International Champions Cup had more than 10 players go to Russia, forcing them to send squads with just half of their regular members – or even less, as in the case of Manchester City, which had 16 players away.
Giving the youngsters a chance to impress is one of the functions of the pre-season tours, and teams usually take a good number along. But when they make up nearly half the squad, it can be limiting for coaches and managers.
“This is not our team, this is not our squad – not even 30 per cent of it. We don’t have a team to play much better than we did. We start the game with almost half the players who are not even going to be in our squad on August 9,” Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho said after a 4-1 defeat to Liverpool in Miami.
Mourinho was not alone to lament his choices.
“It’s a really tough thing to deal with and in the future we have to change it,” said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. “Everything is now so important in football and we have to collect their bones afterwards, more or less.”
“You can’t really work tactically, because the guys you’re with could be leaving, going on loan or second team… This is my fifth pre-season here and it’s been the strangest so far,” said Manchester United midfielder Ander Herrera.
Only three out of 27 fixtures were scheduled in Singapore, limiting the travel to Europe and the US. Despite this, the teams will have racked up a minimum of 10,000 miles of pre-season travel by August 12, when the pre-season engagements end. This can have a debilitating effect on the players.
Take the example of Manchester United. The team played six pre-season games – five in the US and one in Munich. A cross-country journey across North America is no mean feat, but add to that the 5,000-odd miles of travel from England and back and its one heck of a load. PSG, Arsenal and Atletico didn’t travel to the US, but instead made the journey to Singapore. And while Chelsea played its fixtures in Europe, it went all the way to Australia to face Perth Glory.
So much travel, when not fully fit and with such a packed schedule, can have an adverse effect on preparations. All this begs the question: why not skip the pre-season this year entirely?
International sponsors invite clubs to play in certain parts of the world to ensure maximum exposure of their brands – for both the sponsors and the clubs. Since 2013, the International Champions Cup, organised under the banner of Relevent Sports, a US-based sports marketing company, has decorated the pre-season calendar with fixtures that look like final stages of the UEFA Champions League. Clubs have realised the commercial potential in these marquee encounters.
Playing these high-profile fixtures in countries like the US, China, Singapore, South Korea and Australia becomes a way of launching or relaunching a brand in new, emerging markets. For most fans, it’s a rare experience to watch their favourite European teams play in their home town, and the clubs tap into the experience and its potential long-term commercial benefits.
The clubs involved in the 2017 International Champions Cup received between £9 million and £15 million as appearance fees, according to totalsportek.com. Whatever the actual amount, it’s quite a big opportunity for the club to miss out on. But it’s not only about immediate rewards. Clubs are investing in the long-term commercial rewards that global engagement could bring.
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