With more fans in Asia than any other part of the world, Spanish heavyweights Barcelona are eager to widen their fan base even further. The club's Asia Pacific managing director Xavier Asensi tells Vijhay Vick it is never too late to venture into a market dominated by the English Premier League's big guns...
The reigning Champions League and La Liga champions last visited Asia in the summer of 2013, playing Thailand under-23s in Bangkok and the Malaysian senior side at the Shah Alam Stadium.
Asensi, who was in Kuala Lumpur to announce Barcelona’s regional partnership with air freshener brand Ambi Pur last week, said Barcelona would “absolutely” return to the continent when asked if there were plans in the pipeline for another visit to Asia.
“We have a lot fans in Asia – more than Europe and the Americas combined. We are taking this region seriously but next summer there is the European Championship, Copa America and the Olympics,” he told FourFourTwo.
“Most of our players are internationals so they will only come back for pre-season much later. We need to tour when most of our players are available. We will be in Japan for the FIFA Club World Cup in December though.
“We feel that it is never too late to come into Asia and make a mark. Football is always growing. There is a big tradition for English clubs in Asia but if we look at a global scale, and taking into account the performance, Barcelona is always up there. We have been consistent in the Champions League too.
“I am reluctant to put a number to the volume of fans we have in Asia. It is cheap to throw a figure around and consider it the biggest.
“Social media provides a more tangible outlook. We account our fans this way. But even then, you can’t say it is definitive because it’s difficult to get numbers from China (due to their strict social network laws). What we do know is that Indonesia accounts for 10 per cent of our followers worldwide.”
However, having large support in Indonesia leaves Barcelona in a tricky situation because of FIFA’s ban on Indonesian football due to governmental interference in the football association. The five-time Champions League winners cannot play in Indonesia until the ban is lifted.
But Asensi said the ban has not stopped Barcelona from promoting their brand in the country.
“Football is not FIFA. Football is more than FIFA. We can still go into the country by investing directly in coaching clinics and tie up with the right partners so we could leverage on the business. Our website is available in Bahasa Indonesia too,” he said.
Surprisingly, Barcelona did not visit Indonesia during the Asia Tour in 2013. Then, they defeated the Thais 7-1 and Malaysians 3-1 but their second match drew flak from the fans after it was moved to Shah Alam Stadium at the request of the club the night before the match because of unsatisfactory pitch conditions at Bukit Jalil Stadium.
Fans were also disappointed that superstar Lionel Messi did not take the field and felt insulted he only turned up for the match in slippers despite his name being among the substitutes. Fans were expecting a cameo appearance at the very least.
“I fully understand … but we are working harder to work things out for the better. We are humans, and make mistakes. We feel sorry if some people were left disappointed,” Asensi said.
“The safety of the players is crucial. This was a pre-season match where you avoid taking risk because the entire motive of it is to best prepare the team for the coming season.”
The Barcelona-Ambi Pur partnership up to 2016 spans across six countries – Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Indonesia and the Philippines. The two brands hope to share values and emphasis on performance in efforts to kick out unwanted malodours so nothing stands in the way of victory.