Tokyo (AFP) – Manchester United and Liverpool will next week kick off a packed pre-season as European clubs return to the Asia-Pacific region for the first time since the pandemic, keen to tap back into lucrative markets.
The English Premier League heavyweights face off in Bangkok on Tuesday for new United manager Erik ten Hag’s first game against Jurgen Klopp’s side, who threatened to win a historic quadruple last season before being pipped by Manchester City to the Premier League crown and losing the Champions League final to Real Madrid.
Paris Saint-Germain and their superstar players Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe will go to Japan later this month with a new manager, Christophe Galtier, in charge after his appointment this week to succeed Mauricio Pochettino.
Tottenham Hotspur and Premier League Golden Boot winner Son Heung-min, Asia’s most succesful player, are bound to receive a rapturous reception when they play two matches in South Korea next week.
And Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Leeds United will fly to Singapore and Australia as clubs reconnect with their global fans after being grounded by virus restrictions since 2020.
“It has been very challenging time for all clubs for the past two years,” said PSG’s Asia-Pacific managing director Sebastien Wasels, whose club will play three games against J-League sides.
“We know that it was difficult for our fans all over the world not to have the opportunity to see the team.”
Thai fans of Liverpool and Manchester United will get an unprecedented chance to watch the historic rivals on their own doorstep when they meet at Bangkok’s 51,000-capacity Rajamangala Stadium.
But many will be disappointed to be waking up Friday to the news that unsettled Cristiano Ronaldo will not be making the trip with United, after the striker was given additional time off to deal with a family issue.
– ‘Biggest match in Asia’ –
Asian sport marketing expert Marcus Luer, who brokered the deal to bring the teams to Thailand, said the game would be “the single biggest football match ever hosted in Asia, bar none”.
“There is no Korean pop band, or any other football club for that matter, which would be bigger than those two clubs coming here,” he said.
Fans will have to pay a heavy price to see their heroes such as Liverpool’s Mo Salah and Virgil van Dijk or United’s Bruno Fernandes and Harry Maguire, with the cheapest tickets selling for an eye-watering 5,000 baht ($140).
Manchester United fan Bhuwit Panjarattanakorn, 27, said he was looking forward to taking photos of the players at their hotel but he did not plan to buy a ticket because they were “too expensive”.
“It’s just a friendly match and it doesn’t guarantee you’d see a player like Cristiano Ronaldo playing the whole match,” he said, even before it was revealed the Portuguese superstar would not be on the plane to Bangkok.
Manchester United will move on after the game to Australia, where they will play Melbourne Victory, Crystal Palace and Aston Villa.
Liverpool will face Crystal Palace in Singapore, while Leeds United and Villa will compete in the Queensland Champions Cup in Australia alongside local team Brisbane Roar.
Tottenham, who have the captains of both the South Korea men’s and women’s national teams on their books, will take on a K-League select team in Seoul, and Spain’s Sevilla in Suwon.
– ‘Great opportunity’ –
Luer says the fact that European teams will face each other, rather than playing local sides, means it will be more like a “proper competitive match”.
“Liverpool and Manchester United play each other in the third match of the Premier League season, so it’s not far off,” he said.
“If you’re the coach or the players, this is a great opportunity to get into gear and see where you are.”
Commercial opportunities are crucial as clubs look to build their brand in a region that Luer says is “still very important for any football club in the world”.
PSG are returning to Japan for the first time since 1995 but they have an office in Tokyo and have been active in retail, esports and fashion there.
Wasels describes Japan as a “strategy country” where PSG have six million fans, and he says this summer’s tour is “the last part of the puzzle”.
“Since the launch of our project, Japan has always been very central in what we wanted to achieve in terms of brand development,” he said.
“We will have the top players come and not a B team, because I’ve been hearing that some of the fans in Japan were frustrated when some clubs came without the top stars,” he added.
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