It started as a crush in the 1980s and became a steady relationship — but wild scenes show Asia’s love for English soccer is not just passionate, it is getting stronger.
While Asian ardor for the English Premier League has long been known, the unbridled affection seen during this year’s pre-season tours has stunned even seasoned observers.
Rock-star welcomes from Vietnam to Australia. Screaming fans at every hotel and photo shoot. Sold out arenas across the region and thousands paying just to watch their heroes train.
In Jakarta, Liverpool fans are so well-versed that when You’ll Never Walk Alone rang out around the cavernous Gelora Bung Karno Stadium, it was in a pitch-perfect Scouse accent.
“Liverpool fans here know all the club’s songs and chants, and they’ve even learned the accent just from YouTube,” said Fajar Nugraha, who helps run Indonesia’s BigReds fan club.
More than 95,000 fans turned out to watch Liverpool’s friendly in Melbourne, Australia, the second-biggest crowd for a soccer match ever seen in Australia.
In Bangkok, motorbike taxi riders showed loyalty to Manchester United by charging 200 baht (US$6.40) for passengers headed to watch the Red Devils, and 300 baht for the same journey when Chelsea were playing.
One enterprising fan ran 8km through the streets of Hanoi alongside the Arsenal team bus, wearing the team’s shirt, before finally being invited on board.
David Moyes, newly appointed Manchester United manager, was amazed at the welcome when he stepped off their chartered jet in Bangkok, comparing it to Beatlemania.
“We arrived at the airport and I heard lots of screaming young ladies. I don’t think it was at me,” Moyes said. “It was like some famous pop group arriving, it was an incredible welcome.”
Julian Jackson, a veteran Asian hand for sports marketing agency Total Sports Asia, said the popularity of the Premier League is growing “without a doubt.”
“The popularity has been soaring for the last few years,” Jackson said. “They’re only scratching the surface in terms of getting money out of Asia.”
Jackson points to the ever increasing value of TV rights deals for the Premier League in Asia.
On their trips to Asia, clubs charge appearance fees to play friendlies and benefit from sales of official merchandise. They trade also on their popularity by signing sponsorship deals involving everything from banks and credit cards to beer, telecoms, airlines and even tomato juice.
“Our global fan base is just short of a billion and half of those are here in Asia, so it [Asia] is a hugely important part of what we do,” Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore said.
Jackson said Liverpool sharpened their focus on Asia when they hired Ian Ayre, formerly with Kuala Lumpur-based Total Sports Asia, as their managing director and agreed a main sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered, a bank with a strong Asian presence.
The Premier League now has a presence in the dynamic region that rivals, including the NBA and Major League Baseball, can only dream about, but it has been decades in the making, after British TV companies struck deals to screen English soccer in Asian countries long before the advent of explosive economic growth.
“It’s a history thing,” said Jackson, an English expatriate. “The BBC and ITV [British TV stations] were selling English football way before the Germans and Italians and Spanish got involved in the situation. English football has a particular brand — 100 miles per hour, exciting to watch ... and the English were always good at producing highlights shows, magazine shows, interview shows. It meant the fans were more educated.”
With the Premier League followed across the continent, media coverage is vast. As a result, Premier League players are adored like matinee idols, ensuring an ecstatic reception when fans get a rare chance to see them in person.
“They’re like stars, like Hollywood stars coming here. Football fans feel like that,” said Peerawit Anantasirarat, a sports reporter for Thailand’s Modern9 TV. “When John Terry came out, or when Rooney came out at the airport, we’re seeing superstars come here. It’s amazing.”
In Vietnam, hosting a Premier League club for the first time, fans lined up overnight not only for tickets to see Arsenal, but also to meet them at the airport.
Not all has gone smoothly, though. In Indonesia, a promoter was ordered to repay fans who were charged to meet players and in Thailand eyebrows were raised when the prime minister’s young son strode out as a mascot for Chelsea, after also appearing at a coaching clinic by the London club’s stars.