Liverpool battle Man Utd for the Asian fan market

When Alex Ferguson arrived at Manchester United in the 1980s with his sights set on knocking Liverpool off their perch, it just didn’t seem possible. At the time, the Reds of Merseyside were barely visible in the upper reaches of the league table year on year, never mind knock-able. Yet it happened. Now, the idea that Anfield could topple Old Trafford off its Asian perch, at least as far as English clubs go, sounds similarly improbable. But nothing lasts forever in football, and things move quickly in the world’s biggest continent.

In very general terms, United may not be the most popular European club in every Asian country, but take the continent as a whole and they are probably number one ahead of the Spanish giants. How long that position may continue if their current struggles persist is a matter for debate.

Without a league title for over two decades, Liverpool have held their own in commercial markets, but as far as English clubs are concerned are a clear second, at best, behind their northwestern rivals.

Southeast Asia has stayed faithful to the Anfield club. This football-mad region of over 600 million people remembers the ’70s and especially the ’80s, when the trophies seemed endless. The 2005 Champions League triumph was a big boost for the club’s standing everywhere, as was a string of strong performances in that competition, but this season is different.

This new Liverpool is different. Not scrapping and fighting with the best, but blowing them away. It is in direct contrast to a United team that is struggling to produce any of the exciting football and spirit that fans became used to over the years. Liverpool are the new punk upstarts, full of energy and passion, pushing aside the creaking old dinosaurs who seem better at announcing partnership deals with Malaysian potato snack merchants or Thai motorbike manufacturers than collecting points on the pitch. Even Kansai Paints, one of the top 10 coating companies in the world with an ambition to become number one, according to United’s official site, would struggle to put a gloss on this season at Old Trafford.

If you were to produce a brochure that was designed to appeal to those Asian football fans with an interest in European football — and that is probably most of them — then it would be hard to come up with something better than this new version of Liverpool. It ticks all the boxes: history, fans, a great atmosphere at a famous old stadium, global stars and a style of attacking and fearless football that wins games, hearts and new fans.

If Liverpool are still considered a giant in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the rest of Southeast Asia, that is not quite the case in East Asia. In that colder but wealthier region, home to three of the world’s biggest economies and more than a fifth of its population, the connection to England’s top tier is relatively recent and few fans will have witnessed Liverpool’s past domination. They have, however, seen plenty of United victories and hosted plenty of United games.

Asian stars on Premier league teams do help grow fan bases on the continent, though not if the players are misused, like Park Chu-Young was at Arsenal.

In 2009, Ferguson’s men came to South Korea and the host team FC Seoul rearranged their league fixture to accommodate the English visitors. Two years later, Liverpool announced the same plan against the same team but had to call it all off. This was not because of the reason given that Korean football was busy dealing with a match-fixing scandal, but because of fan opposition to moving a league game. In a relatively new but important Asian market, Liverpool just did not have the pulling power of their northwest rivals. Now, it may be different.

As well as success, an Asian star or two could help. Talk of European giants buying eastern assets for their commercial worth is tiresome, but the right player who makes a difference on the pitch can do so off it, too. There’s no benefit to signing someone who never plays as it turns the initial excitement back home into disappointment to frustration and finally to annoyance — for example: Park Chu-young at Arsenal. But sign a top player who becomes a key player, and media and supporters back east will respond. The 1 million-plus Manchester United credit cards that found their way into South Korean wallets would never have done so had Park Ji-sung never played.

None of that is news to anyone, not least the commercial department of a major club like Liverpool who are well aware that to be a global player, you have to be big in Asia. There is no debate on that.

Standard Chartered, the club’s sponsor, helps as does the fact that Liverpool University’s Football Industries MBA has attracted plenty of Asian students over the years who have often returned home to work in leagues/clubs/media as Liverpool fans. A financial institution that has been in major Asian markets for a considerable amount of time, and has growing connections with some of those football scenes, would love nothing more than to see a star from the east shine at Anfield, as comments from the company’s CEO Gavin Laws confirmed in 2011.

“If they could get a Korean, Indian, Chinese player — look what Park [Ji-sung] has done for [Manchester] United in terms of coverage in Korea,” Laws said. “Liverpool are more aware than most other clubs we’ve spoken to of the commercial opportunity for them.”

Perhaps Keisuke Honda joined the wrong European giant. Shinji Kagawa would be fantastic, but United would surely not sell to such a rival, while there was excitement last summer in Seoul when Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre bumped into Korean journalists and when asked if the club was interested in Son Heung-min, then linked to Borussia Dortmund and Chelsea. He replied — though he was hardly going to say no — that they were keeping an eye on him.

Maybe an up-and-coming star such as Japan’s soon-to-be-Europe-bound attacking midfielder Yoichiro Kakitani would be best? Anfield will certainly be keeping an eye on young Chinese talents like playmakers Wu Lei and Zhang Xihze — all major European clubs dream of unearthing the first global star from the world’s most populous country — and plenty of others.

At the moment as the English Premier League season reaches its climax, playing and coaching staff have their thoughts on the title and nothing else, but elsewhere at Liverpool there is surely some consideration being given to the east. The team’s fall from the very top of English football coincided with its globalization, but things can change quickly out east. Liverpool are flying high, and Manchester United’s hold on the Asian perch is not as strong as it once was. Anything can happen………….


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