Liverpool vs. Manchester United in Bangkok is a promoter’s dream: a clash between the two biggest clubs from the biggest league in the world, and a game being played in front of supporters who might be getting a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see their heroes play within touching distance of their seats in the stand. But for the players, Tuesday’s preseason friendly in Thailand, and others like them, is the stuff of nightmares.
Footballers dread preseason tours. High-profile friendlies and double training sessions in heat and humidity, with body and mind tormented by jet lag, are bad enough, but events off the pitch are what really make the game’s top players greet their summer globe-trotting with trepidation rather than excitement.
“The tours are relentless,” a former United executive told ESPN. “The players hate them because there’s no escape from work mode. They train, they play and try to rest, but if there is a one-hour gap in the schedule, they will be meeting sponsors, signing shirts for VIP fans or being asked to front a commercial for one of the club’s partners.”
Former United manager Louis van Gaal even urged the team’s new boss Erik ten Hag to be wary of taking the job at what he described as a “commercial club” earlier this year.
Ten Hag will soon learn what Van Gaal was alluding to when he experiences life on tour with United over the next two-and-a-half weeks: Ten Hag and his 31-man squad were greeted by hundreds of fans at Bangkok’s Don Mueang International Airport before taking part in an official welcoming ceremony in the terminal building on Saturday morning.
One United player spoke of the club “taking the piss” on one of their recent summer tours, with the squad “sliced and diced” to fulfil sponsor requirements before and after training. But it isn’t just United. All of the leading clubs embark on lucrative trips to Asia or the United States, aiming to reach their long-distance supporters, but also to grow their brand and, most importantly, repay those sponsors who spend millions to have their company logo attached to a glamorous, globally renowned football team. A Liverpool source told ESPN that their trip to Thailand and Singapore, where they will play Crystal Palace on Friday, is the “commercial tour” before manager Jurgen Klopp is able to get back to the real work of preseason with a training camp in Austria.
But here’s why the players and managers have no choice but to suck it up when their club sends them halfway around the world to play a friendly, when they could be preparing for the new season without such a distraction.
Back in 2012, United took an 8,000-mile, 16-hour flight from Cape Town to Shanghai to play one game, against Shanghai Shenhua, in order to help launch a new partnership with General Motors (GM), which had agreed to a deal for the club to use Chevrolet as their official car partner. GM wanted to grow their brand in China and it was willing to pay United to help do it. In terms of football preparation, travelling so far for one game was a brutal test of the players’ physical and mental strength.
With the flight time, humidity and seven-hour time difference, the trip made no sense whatsoever. But by flying to China, United honoured a commitment to Chevrolet and hit the jackpot by doing so.
Sources have told ESPN that senior executives from the company were so blown away by United’s popularity in a city of 28 million people that they ripped up the partnership paperwork and instead offered to give the club £63 million a year to have their name on the team shirts and become United’s principal sponsor. It was a world-record deal — United’s sponsors at the time, Aon, were paying only £20m a year — making the arduous journey from South Africa pay off in spectacular fashion. On the pitch, United beat Shanghai 1-0, but the game was probably blurred out by the celebratory champagne being drunk by the commercial team.
Every club now wants their own “Chevrolet moment,” which is why football takes second place in July every summer. The players pay the price, but when Liverpool gave Mohamed Salah a new £350,000-a-week contract this summer, the forward will surely have known the big sponsors are what enable the club to pay him so handsomely and, in turn, they want something back.
“Everyone was worn out by the time we got back”
Sometimes, the players actually enjoy the more imaginative PR stunts. When Chevrolet’s deal with United launched during their tour of the U.S. in 2014, Wayne Rooney and Darren Fletcher were given the keys to a convertible Chevrolet Camaro and filmed as they drove through Beverly Hills while dressed in their new strip, the sponsor’s logo there for all to see. Later that day, the pair were then dispatched to sign footballs at a Los Angeles fire station — less glamorous, perhaps — and one senior player recalled how draining that five-game tour proved to be.
“It was training at 8.30 a.m., sent to rooms for a couple of hours rest, training after lunch, back for video meetings and tactics discussion,” he told ESPN. “Then back to rooms, supper of toast and then bed at half 10. Every day for 14 days, and the commercial stuff, too. We were exhausted by the time we got home and lost the first game of the season.”
On that tour, Van Gaal was so angered by the schedule and planning that he ordered the club to block-book rooms at a motel near the training ground in the L.A. suburbs so the players could sleep between sessions, rather than have them traveling back to their opulent base at the Beverly Wilshire hotel on Rodeo Drive.
Liverpool have also had their problems on tour. In 2015, tempers began to fray during the dying embers of Brendan Rodgers’ reign as manager and a trip to Thailand, Malaysia and Australia was marred by a monsoon that forced one game in Bangkok to be halted. There was also a moment of pure comedy when Rodgers, following a prickly news conference, was ferried away from the media centre in a golf cart, which then crashed into the rear of a stationary cart right in front of the cameras.
That two-week trip took place on “Melwood Time” — a time zone named after the club’s then-training ground in Liverpool — with the club attempting to minimise the effects of jet lag by spending the entire fortnight four hours ahead of U.K. time regardless of their location. “It didn’t work,” a source told ESPN. “Nobody slept properly, half the team picked up colds and bugs, and everyone was worn out by the time we got back to Liverpool.”
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Twelve months later, United and Manchester City spent a week in China preparing for a first-ever Manchester derby outside of the country, which would be played at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium. But torrential rain flooded the pitch, ruined the grass and led to patches of turf literally moving apart. The game was called off, and both clubs returned to Manchester; it was probably just as well, too, as a group of United players spent hours stranded in Tianjin after bad weather had forced the plane to divert, prompting Memphis Depay to post a video from a darkened terminal building.
“We are lost somewhere … we had to make a quick landing somewhere,” Depay said. “We tried to fly to Beijing, but the weather is a little bit bad so we had to land somewhere else. I hope we can leave soon so that we can prepare ourselves for the game vs. Manchester City.”
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Getting business done, but also getting ready for the season
Perhaps it is an insight into the cosseted world of top footballers that anything but the perfect preparation they enjoy in the Premier League leads to discomfort and frustration when on tour. One source told ESPN that the players generally prefer summers in the U.S. because all but the most famous stars can “walk down Fifth Avenue in total anonymity.” It is a different story in Asia, where large numbers of fans slept outside The Shilla hotel in Seoul, during United’s visits in 2007 and 2009, simply to take a picture of their favourite player or have a shirt signed. United’s commercial team, meanwhile, sealed a four-year partnership with a South Korean tyre company during their 2007 visit.
In Australia in 2013, United’s security team had to plead with a nightclub owner to allow the players to hide inside after then-manager David Moyes took the squad for a walk on the beach without realising they’d be mobbed by fans. “David had done it with Everton on a previous trip,” a United source said. “But despite being warned it would be different with United, he took the players out. It was chaos within 10 minutes.”
Ten Hag will be warned to avoid similar attempts to break the monotony for his players in Thailand and Australia as he discovers, firsthand, the unique pressure of a preseason tour with one of the game’s biggest clubs, but it will be a demanding trip on and off the pitch. Getting the squad ready for the season is, after all, his priority.
United chartered a Boeing 747 jumbo jet, with business class seats throughout, to take the team to Bangkok, but less than half of those onboard were involved with the playing staff. The rest? Club executives and members of the commercial team who, after two years without the chance to cash in on the United brand due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be charged with exploiting every spare minute to boost revenue streams and, in particular, ensuring that United’s official financial services affinity partner in Thailand (yes, they do have one) gets plenty of attention. Liverpool also have regular income from Thailand thanks to their partnership with Chaokoh, a Thai coconut water brand.
For every player at a top club, preseason tours are all the same: training, football, jet lag and hours as a walking billboard. But those big contracts and transfer fees have to be paid, and the clubs must find a way. The players don’t like it, but it is a price they simply have to pay.