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By Tony Attwood
All major clubs, and most certainly including Arsenal, are keen to break into new territories. Indeed we have seen this with Arsenal who had a well-publicised link with Nigeria at one time, although eventually it came to nothing after the 2012 visit to the country was called off due to “complexities linked to the planned game”.
But many clubs are desperate for finance from whatever source, and so they do continue to try and set up all sorts of events and links. Sometimes they work but then as with this past weekend, sometimes they don’t as officials in the Chinese city Hangzhou canceled a friendly match between Argentina and Nigeria to be held there.
The immediate cause seemed to be Lionel Messi not playing in a match Hong Kong because of injury, but then playing in Tokyo days later. I guess we’d see a player missing one game to be able to play the next as managing his aging body. But that’s a dangerous assumption to make in China. The authorities have taken it as an insult.
Indeed it is worth remembering the Chinese football chaos once more, as people start wondering just what is happening to the much-vaunted Saudi league, where crowds are reported to range from “modest” to “disappointing”.
In 2019 Gareth Bale, then of Real Madrid was said to be moving to Jiangsu Suning for £1m-a-week contract. Two years later Jiangsu Suning ceased playing and the team bus was sold.
China’s problem, perceived from the outside, was that the authorities looked on football as something they could regulate in their own way, as they started taxing transfers and capping salaries. That, it turned out, was not what those attracted to the country had signed up for.
Now in the case of Lionel Messi missing a game the word being put out by Chinese media appears to be that political motives were at play and there were “external forces deliberately seeking to embarrass Hong Kong.”
The Global Times also didn’t like the explanation that the player was injured, and other media started talking about how the issue had gone beyond the world of football (suggesting that there were political motivies).
One of the problems that footballers (even those of a certain age) find on going to China is that anything can be taken as a personal insult and the result can be quite difficult to manage. In this case because Messi had played in five pre-season games but then missed the Hong Kong game that was the “personal insult” – not the fact that the old chap had just played five games and pulled a muscle.
Indeed CNN has written about the “highly nationalistic social media sphere,” in China, and recalled an issue back in 2019 when a manager of Houston Rockets basketball team expressed support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — and that threatened to undermine the whole basis of the U.S. National Basketball Association’s growing investment in China.
It is for reasons like this that western bodies are increasingly uncertain about investing in countries that don’t have any of the democratic traditions of the west, which allow free speech on all sides.
It is also because of these uncertainties and of course, the fact that the ownership of Arsenal is based in the United States, that Arsenal are these days far less likely to be involved in tours to parts of the world that do not have a sound base of democratic procedures and a free media. Thus it would seem ever more likely that Arsenal’s overseas ventures in the close season will continue to focus on the United States.
Indeed World Soccer recently ran the story that NBC wants the Premier League Summer Series to return in 2025.
Everyone writing in the USA seems to agreed that the 2023 series was a success and it is reported that “NBC Sports is hopeful that the competition will return in 2025, one year before the World Cup 2026 begins in North America.”
That 2023 series ran with Chelsea, Brighton, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Fulham and Brentford with gates averaging 44,000 per match.
The thought now is that the Premier League is preparing to partner with NBC Sports actually to compete directly against the 32 team Club World Cup, also to be hosted in the United States in the summer of 2025.
That should make an interesting battle – for it if does happen it will be the first time a Fifa tournament has been directly competed against by one organised by a group of clubs. If that happens, it could be the first step towards clubs taking back control of their own affairs, and showing Fifa the door.
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