With news that Chelsea have made an offer for Japanese international Yoshinori Muto, it is perhaps time to take a look at the growing importance for clubs to sign players for the role they play in attracting large foreign markets rather than their significance in the starting XI. The determination for football clubs to expand their fan base worldwide has seen a number of footballers bought more for their commercial appeal than for their skill on the pitch. Chelsea’s offer for FC Tokyo‘s 22-year-old forward Muto comes less than two months after the London club signed a £200m shirt sponsorship deal with Yokohama Rubber, a Japanese tyre firm. Just last week, news emerged that the current league leaders were planning a post-season tour of Japan, a 12,000-mile round trip, following the close of the current Premier League season. While most teams are looking to rest after a long and strenuous season, Chelsea are putting their players to work in order to increase the Chelsea “brand”. But while Chelsea may be successful in growing their fan base in Japan, the question remains whether those who turn out in their new Chelsea kit be seen as fans or customers and if the distinction is important in the increasingly economically dedicated ‘beautiful game’.
Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck highlighted the global reach of the Yokohama deal as well as saying that the club would, with Yokohama, be a bigger player in the Japanese market. “We believe that Yokohama will play a key role in helping us drive our global expansion in international markets such as the US, where they have operated with distinction for many years. Also, of course, Chelsea having such an esteemed and historic Japanese company as our partner enables us to accelerate our development in their home market too”.
The idea to sign players from Asian countries as a tactic to increase the clubs fan base in those countries was first utilized by Everton. In 2002, Everton became the first European football club to sign a sponsorship deal with a Chinese company. The deal with Keijan, China’s top mobile phone manufacturer was for two years and was reported to be worth £1 million per season. As part of the deal two Chinese internationals Li Tie and Li Weifeng would come to the Merseyside club on 12-month loans. Li Tie would make his move permanent for a £1.2m fee, two-thirds of which was funded by Far East sponsorship.
Everton also planned to tour China, set up a Chinese based club, and created a Mandarin page on its official website so they could sell merchandise, such as replica shirts, to the massive Chinese market with a population of 1.3 billion. By the time the 2002/03 season began, Everton had moved ahead of Liverpool and Manchester United as China’s favourite team. The Everton press conferences were often packed with Japanese journalist’s making constant checks on the progress of the two Chinese internationals. The two players encapsulate both the benefits and drawbacks this tactics can have on a team. A few months into the season Li Tie had established himself in the first team, something many observers did not anticipate. On the other hand, during Li Weifing’s time at Everton he only made two appearances, playing once in the league against Southampton and once in the league cup against Wrexham.
On the 1st of January 2003, 365 million Chinese viewers watched Everton take on Manchester City live on Chinese television. As well as the Everton’s two Chinese players, Manchester City also had their Sun Jihai playing As a result, the television audience in the Far East was 200 times larger than what the game would have attracted in England. By February 2003, the Chinese version of Everton’s website had received more than three million hits after it was set up in August 2002.
Perhaps the masters at increasing their fan base in Asia through the players they sign is Manchester United. In 2004, Dong Fangzhuo signed for Manchester United for an initial fee of £500,000, which could have risen to £3.5 million, depending upon appearances. He thus became the first East Asian player to sign for Manchester United. Dong’s story is a cautionary tale of how a teenager from the East, full of hopes and dreams, joined one of the biggest clubs in the world in 2004 only to find himself playing in Armenia in 2011 after years of frustration and anonymity. His first appearance for the Red Devils came in 2005 in a friendly in Hong Kong to a sold out crowd. After signing for Manchester United, he was unable to play for the senior team immediately because he was ineligible for a work permit. Due to these legal issues, Dong was loaned out to get first-team experience with Belgian First Division side Royal Antwerp where the employment laws were less strict. On 15 December 2006, almost three years after his original signing, Dong was finally given a work permit to play in England.
When Dong landed in Manchester at the end of 2006, the countdown to his debut started. They had to wait until May 2007 for the first sight of a Chinese Red Devil. His debut came against Chelsea when United had already won the League and were resting players ahead of an FA Cup final. The Chinese star was one of a number of unfamiliar faces in the line-up for a worthless game. For the rest of his time at the club, Chinese newspapers were reduced to covering reserve matches. In August 2008, without a squad number and any hope of making it at the club, Dong’s contract was cancelled and he returned to Dalian. Although the popularity of Manchester United had grown considerably in China, with constant news reports from the Chinese media on the player and an increase in shirt sales, a promising football career had been destroyed.
While Dong Fangzhuo may point to the cynical nature clubs are employing in growing their popularity, one only has to look at the career of Park Ji-sung to see how the deal can be beneficial for everyone involved. In July 2005, Park signed for the Premier League side for £4 million, and was successful both on the pitch and for United’s bank balance. Sales of United merchandise in Korea, including but not exclusively Park-emblazoned shirts, became a ‘multi-millionpound’ earner each year. Over a million Koreans had a United-branded credit or debit card, many showing Park’s face with United earning an undisclosed sum from each one sold. United also played profitable pre-season matches in South Korea’s capital, Seoul, twice following Park’s signing from PSV Eindhoven, during Asian tours in 2007 and 2009. The income from those sell-out games was said to be ‘multi-million’. Audited data showed that 40 million South Koreans in total watch United games on TV each season, roughly one million people per game. The club have a Korean language website that attracts four million users annually. There are even official Manchester United restaurants in Seoul and Daegu.
While Park was one of the most popular figures in Asia which in turn made Manchester United a household name, he also became one of Sir Alex Ferguson’s most trusted players. Known for his incredible work rate and dedication to the team, he was nicknamed Three Lungs for his remarkable endurance, Ferguson often played Park in United’s most important games and became the first Asian player in history to play in a Champions League Final, starting in both the 2009 and 2011 Champions League Final, with United losing on both occasions to Barcelona.
Despite the commercial appeal Park brought to United Ferguson was keen to stress his importance to the club. After the Korean midfielder scored the winner for Manchester United in their vital win over Liverpool in March 2010, Sir Alex Ferguson lavished praise on him and dismissed suggestions that he had only been brought to the club for commercial reasons. Responding to the proposal that Park was bought to increase shirt sales Ferguson said: “I didn’t think that… Someone is always going to take a runner on something like selling shirts. But you could say that about every player we have signed.” Instead the United boss focused on Park’s characteristics as a player: “When I went to see him play in those Champions League semi-finals for PSV Eindhoven in 2005 I thought this is a player who understands football. He is intelligent and disciplined and he can play different positions. I had no issues about that at all.”
Overall Park’s career at United saw the midfielder play over 200 times and he left with 4 Premier League winners’ medals and a victory in the 2007–08 Champions League campaign. He is remembered fondly by the United faithful, with chants still sung in his honour at home games. Park was the first player to show that players from that Asia could be known for their footballing ability more than their commercial appeal. Speaking to United official website, Park spoke of his struggle to shift his tag as a shirt seller rather than a footballer:
“People said I was here for merchandising, but I couldn’t say anything because I’m a football player and had to show my ability on the pitch. I kept showing that and now everybody knows I’m not here to sell T-shirts…I know that historically Asian players haven’t done well in Europe. But I think we can show our ability and that Asian players can play better than some European players. Now everybody is seeing that Asian players can also play in Europe so I am satisfied with that.”
In recent years, Arsenal signed South Korean striker Park Chu-young. After seven minutes of English Premier League football, he was released in early 2014. For a small transfer fee, Arsenal could make headlines and fans in the player native South Korea without having to spend much on publicity. The career of the player is seen as secondary.
In 2012, Brazilian champions Corinthians agreed to a two year loan deal with Chinese youngster Chen Zhizhao, who was the first Chinese player in Brazil’s top flight. There were mentions by the Brazilian media that the move was part of Corinthians “marketing plan” and the club’s marketing director, Luis Paulo Rosenberg, didn’t seem to want to hide the fact. He’s quoted as saying the club would bring in “any old rubbish from China” to help promote the club here.
For Yoshinori Muto, a difficult decision awaits. With an offer apparently on the table, the young player, who recently graduated from university with a degree in economics, will have to decide if he wants make the move to the Premier League. Based on the previous examples, all signs point to a decline in a promising career in order to become an advert for a club rather than a valued teammate. While of course the economic success of football clubs in incredibly important, more so with the growing importance of Financial Fair Play, but should it come at the cost of certain individuals and their dream to play football? Football may have long moved away from the love of the game to a big business were profits are seen as a cornerstone of a successful season, but if the story of Asian footballers plying their trade in the world’s best leagues has thought us anything, it’s that clubs are becoming more interested in their brands rather than their team.