Is the Cancelled ‘Manchester Derby’ in China the Final Nail in the Coffin For Pre-Season?

The farce of the cancelled ‘Manchester derby’ in Beijing should hammer home the fact that pre-season is no longer about preparation, so much as it is about corporate expectation.
July 25, 2016, 1:39pm
EPA Images/How Hwee Young

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

Ahead of the 1996/97 season, Manchester United embarked on a small pre-season tour of Ireland. They went on to play Inter Milan (twice), Ajax and Celtic in various venues around Europe, while also playing two low-key friendlies against Premier League opposition, namely Nottingham Forest and Coventry City. Their preparations consisted of a modest overseas adventure – not too taxing, with ideal circumstances for the team to gel – as well as serious tests against European opposition and a domestic dry-run against bread-and-butter teams. That is perhaps the perfect formula for pre-season, and it set the team up for a campaign in which they reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, and won the title with a couple of games to spare.

That was 20 years ago, however. Now, we do pre-season rather differently.

While the Premier League era was in full swing by the summer of 1996, the globalisation of English football was nowhere near as developed as it is today. In terms of television revenue, marketing, advertising and sponsorship, the significance of the world audience has grown exponentially over the last two decades. In terms of the day-to-day running of a football club, the desire to appeal to the global market affects almost everything. Pre-season is no exception and, in fact, pre-season tours are on the frontline of football clubs' ongoing battle for global supremacy.

United won the league in '97, on the back of a pre-season tour that included a game against Portadown // PA Images

That is the context for Manchester United's latest pre-season adventure, which has seen them embark on a week-long tour of China, racking up almost 30 flight hours there and back while covering around 10,000 miles. The tour is now coming to a close and, all told, it has been nothing more than a high-profile marketing stunt. It ended in absolute farce on Monday morning, with their much-publicised clash with Manchester City called off owing to torrential rain and poor conditions on the pitch. Prior to that, it had consisted of a 4-1 drubbing by Borussia Dortmund in Shanghai, and a series of bizarre photoshoots which gave Wayne Rooney and co. the opportunity to pose with TAG Heuer watches and miniature bottles of Gulf Oil.

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Considering the distance to China and the fledgling state of its football infrastructure, the motivations for the tour are fairly transparent. It has been a branding exercise, an attempt to exploit a potential new market, and a significant coup for United's sponsorship partners which will ensure their lucrative patronage continues to go smoothly. The fact that the players have wasted so much of their time and energy on tedious plane journeys is immaterial, because an arduous outing to China is what TAG Heuer and Gulf Oil pay their money for. Pre-season is no longer about preparing the players for the months ahead, so much as it is about fulfilling corporate expectations in the here and now.

United players were given TAG Heuer watches to wear upon arrival in China // Via

While the tour itself is a near-total charade, the cancelled 'Manchester derby' in Beijing is a reminder of the true absurdity of modern football. Not only is it ridiculous that two direct rivals should be playing a friendly only a couple of weeks prior to the start of the actual season, the circumstances of the fixture bordered on the surreal. The Mirror reports that neither side could train ahead of the game owing to the poor conditions, and that the turf was a major injury-risk prior to kick-off. On top of that, a combination of extreme humidity and a lack of air conditioning made press conferences almost impossible. United's plane was diverted because of poor weather, there were problems with the Chinese authorities upon landing and then, once the players were finally driven to the team hotel, some of the rooms were smokey and unpleasant. Jose Mourinho could barely conceal his fury while speaking to the press, which is understandable, really.

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While the _Monty Python_-esque organisational slapstick of the tour might have been avoided, the appalling weather conditions are part and parcel of the Chinese summer, and could have been predicted by anyone with access to an iPhone weather app, or indeed the internet. Clubs aren't hung up on that sort of detail, however, and when it comes down to it, the marketability of a pre-season excursion trumps all. Nevermind that the conditions are potentially detrimental to both teams, nevermind that nobody gains any benefit from a half-paced runabout in which neither side can afford to give anything away. Manchester United must play Manchester City in a showcase friendly in the capital of China, because China is open for business, and could be the next great consumer in terms of shirt sales, and merchandise, and innumerable hours of television.

Chinese fans watch a United training session. The 'Manchester derby' itself was massively undersold // EPA Images/How Hwee Young

If anything, the folly of the 'Manchester derby' in Beijing could be the final nail in the coffin for the concept of pre-season. This might be the moment that the veil falls away, and supporters see the overseas tour for what it has become. Pre-season is no longer about fostering team spirit, or testing the players, or preparing the team for the coming campaign. It is now about Gulf Oil, and TAG Heuer, and sponsorship, and profit margins. It is now an exercise in financing, and making a shitload of money. Unfortunately, its worth in terms of football is practically nil.