EPL tours are fun, but local football must come first

Malaysian clubs have every right to protest Liverpool’s trip, argues Neil Humphreys...

My first novel was partially inspired by Manchester United’s pre-season tour of Singapore and Malaysia in 2001. ‘Match Fixer’ satirised the region’s gambling culture, but it also lamented the absence of a deep-rooted affinity for local football.

In the book, a fictional character agreed to throw matches after being booed by his country’s own supporters whilst playing against Manchester United. Apart from the match-fixing part, this actually happened.

Watching a section of the Singaporean crowd boo their toiling countrymen, mocking their mistakes and celebrating all seven of the United goals knocked past the outclassed Lions was deeply dispiriting.

So it may come as no surprise that the rebelliousness brewing across the Causeway feels like a refreshing antidote after all that Barclays Asia Trophy hoopla (put the corporate pitchforks down, I’ll get to the positives).

On Friday night, according to reports, Liverpool will take on a weakened Malaysian Selection at Bukit Jalil.

It seems uncouth to ponder what difference a full-strength Malaysian side would make in these one-paced exhibitions, but the unexpected anarchy even made the sports pages back in the UK.

Selangor, Pahang and Police FA all refused to release their players for the Liverpool game, expressing their understandable frustration that the kickaround comes in the middle of their domestic season. They are also questioning the financial and sporting benefits of these pre-season jamborees.

The kneejerk reaction to their protest is to hail the meek for standing up to the mighty, those frustrated Malaysians fed up with being perceived as little more than a nation of bare backs grateful to be covered with the latest jerseys festooned with sponsors’ logos.

They are trying to save what’s left of a national league’s dignity; a league deemed so irrelevant that football’s imperialists can ride roughshod through its fixture list, turning up with empty swag bags.

Of course, the obvious retort to all of this is, so what else is new? Calm down, buy a ticket and leave the naivety at the turnstile.

Anyone who believes that EPL clubs come here to water the grassroots and put on a show of high intensity has either never seen a genuinely competitive Premier League game before or works for the tournament’s organisers.

It’s supply and demand economics in its simplest form. Guns were not held to the heads of the 52,107 spectators who attended the Barclays Asia Trophy final. That’s 30,000 more than the 22,000 who stretched out at the National Stadium for the SEA Games final between Thailand and Myanmar.

More than 50,000 will also likely make their way to Bukit Jalil to watch Liverpool perform some light jogging and shooting exercises.

These exhibitions are entertaining spectacles. But unlike the SEA Games final, they are not sporting spectacles. They are somewhere between a Harlem Globetrotters tour and the late George Best’s “have boots, will travel” roadshows that took him to the likes of Hong Kong and Brisbane in exchange for some pocket money and a first class ticket.

But no one is getting shortchanged here. Fans catch a glimpse of their idols. The players work on pre-season fitness and the clubs hopefully annex new territory in their Operation Sell Shirt advance. It’s the globalisation of professional sport writ large.

But there’s a whopping great caveat more blindingly obvious than Peter Crouch in the penalty box; a point well made by those rebellious Malaysians. How does any of this help local football? More controversially, do these tours actually harm local football?

James Milner (left) and Jordan Henderson at a press conference to promote the match against the Malaysia XI

A handful of clinics and workshops certainly improve relations between European and Asian football leagues, but the parched grassroots feel like they are being trampled underfoot.

Liverpool sell out stadiums in Australia, too, but Australia has four established football codes, each comfortable in its own skin and more than capable of withstanding the temporary occupations of superior sporting leagues.

With a deeply entrenched local football culture, it’s not an either-or scenario Down Under between the A-League and the Premier League, one can and does compliment the other.

But South-east Asia’s struggling leagues are simply not afforded that privilege. Pre-season visits reinforce the gulf in quality and subconsciously undermine the local game, quite literally when they show contempt for the domestic fixture list.

Rather than follow that clichéd narrative of inspiring little Fandi to follow local football, it’s far more likely to make him pick up a remote control instead.

Listening to well-meaning Premier League coaches offer patronising platitudes to their local opponents is almost as painful as watching Premier League teams prop up selection sides to spare further humiliation, like Larry Holmes not wanting to hit Muhammad Ali anymore.

Is that a worthwhile experience for local football? Or would a local pro be better served playing for his employers and contributing towards their domestic goals?

The pre-season tours undoubtedly make for an entertaining evening, but so does Cirque du Soleil. Their long-term benefits for the local game are less tangible.

Malaysia’s rebels should be praised rather than pilloried for putting their league’s interests ahead of those of the English Premier League.  

After all, no one else is.