Change comes to preseason friendlies

David De Gea of Manchester United saves a shot from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal during their Premier League match. Picture: Michael Regan/Getty Images
David De Gea of Manchester United saves a shot from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang of Arsenal during their Premier League match. Picture: Michael Regan/Getty Images

Not too long ago, fans of clubs such as English sides Torquay United, Barnet FC or Ireland first-division side Shelbourne could dream of watching their teams take on Manchester United or Arsenal – at least in preseason friendlies.

Those days are long gone, as the concept of preseason has changed fundamentally.

No longer is the only function of preseason training to get the players ready for the new season; it has as much to do with brand awareness, marketability and finances as it does with preparations.

Everton, who finished eighth in the Premier League last season, played their first preseason friendly in Kenya last week.

Their opponents were not one of the big clubs in that country, such as Gor Mahia or AFC Leopards. No, they played the Kariobangi Sharks, who finished ninth in the Kenyan top flight.

However, what at first glance does not seem to make any sense, makes complete sense when delving a little deeper. Like Cape Town FC, Everton’s main sponsors are a betting company called SportPesa.

SportPesa, in turn, is a Kenyan company that sponsors the SportPesa Cup, a competition played annually between four teams from Kenya and four from Tanzania.

And one of the prizes that the winners receive is a friendly match against Everton, which this year fell to the Sharks, who even managed to secure a penalty shoot-out victory against the Premier League club.

Striker Theo Walcott was impressed with the way they were received in east Africa.

“It was clear that people love football there,” the former Arsenal star said.

“It was our first preseason friendly, so some of the players were still a bit rusty. We went into the game competitive, as it is always good to get into good habits.”

Walcott is not the only player who had to travel a considerable distance to play in a preseason friendly match, as the only Premier League clubs that are not playing any matches abroad are Burnley and Leicester City.

Asia and the US seem to be the favourite destinations, as clubs are being wooed to travel long distances, presumably being paid well for the discomfort of having to send their players on lengthy plane trips.

Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur are participating in the annual International Champions Cup, as are teams such as Real Madrid, Juventus, Benfica Lisbon and Bayern Munich.

Matches are played in the US, China, Sweden, Wales, England and Singapore, and each of the 12 participating teams play three matches, with an overall champion being crowned at the end.

A women’s International Champions Cup will be played in the US, with Lyon, Manchester City and Atlético Madrid joining the defending champions, North Carolina Courage.

China and the US are also seeing other Premier League clubs flying in for matches, with league champions Manchester City playing two games in China and one in Japan, while Champions League winners Liverpool, who flew more than 34 000km a few seasons ago in the preseason period, will be playing three matches in the US.

Liverpool’s managing director and chief commercial officer, Billy Hogan, said they were looking forward to taking on Borussia Dortmund, Sevilla and Sporting Lisbon.

“The preseason tour is an important time of the year for our first team to prepare for the upcoming season, while also providing the opportunity to bring the first team to our fans around the world.”

He was speaking as a true marketing man, though not all footballers would agree with him.

Northern Ireland international Paul McVeigh, who played in more than 200 matches in England’s top flight, admitted he hated the preseason games.

“But it’s the most critical time of the season – it can affect every part of your game.

“You push your body to the limits, squeezing every last drop of energy out of yourself. Some mornings, you wake up feeling like you’ve been beaten with a baseball bat,” said the former striker, who founded a mental performance company that works with professional players.

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