Asian ‘Eldorado’ lures Spain's clubs

Jordi Quixano of the Barcelonan newspaper El Paris noticed that seven of Spain’s major league football clubs spent their short summer break touring Asia; a far cry from Espanyol's lonely promotion in 1973. "They didn't have a clue who we were. I don't think one person asked me for an autograph," said former Spanish international, Solsona, reminiscing of that pioneering effort.

"Thirty two years later, thanks largely to what could be called the Manchester United effect, things have changed," Quixano opined:

A club is a brand, and a brand needs three things: a growing audience, publicity, and fan loyalty. Asia is the world's most populated continent; it has large multinationals, and is prepared to idolize footballers.

"In June 50,000 people were in tears because they were unable to see Ronaldinho," says Shigeo Hidaritomo, the general director of Yokohama Marinos. The Japanese are more interested in individual players rather than teams. "There is no cultural or geographic link to football, so they go for the media stars. But in the long run, they will become fans of the club," says a Real Madrid official.

In the short term, economic interests prevail. "There is no doubt that in terms of planning for the coming season, the last thing we need is to be setting off on long journeys, but that's where the money is," argues Miguel Ángel Lotina, Espanyol's coach. And the money is not the same for clubs like Lotina's, compared to the likes of Real Madrid or Barcelona.

While Madrid is able to charge €3 million per game, and Barcelona commands the same fee for two games, other clubs must do some hard bargaining. Espanyol were paid €1 million for three games, while Villareal, Seville, and Zaragoza, who played in a recent tournament in China, or Real Sociedad in South Korea, had to be content with half a million euros.

Quixano believes players and training staff understand the reason for the tours; they are after all, employees of a big business. But that doesn't prevent complaints: "The objective of the exercise is to promote ourselves; to let them get to know us. But it plays havoc with our training schedules," says Sevilla coach Juan de Ramos.

No word, either, about win-win benefits for Asian domestic competitions.