Friendlies are fun. It can be enjoyable to watch your team play an opponent that wouldn’t usually visit in the regular schedule; especially if it’s a high-profile team from overseas. It’s a chance for your manager to try something new, and see some younger players get some minutes. Usually they take place before the season starts, so it’s a good warmup for your vocal chords as a supporter, a way to get back into the swing of things.
For the club, of course, they make money and — increasingly — are used to “raise brand awareness” around the world. Well, whatever. The bigger issue comes when the cash cows start interfering with competitive play, and Real Madrid’s schedule of friendlies this summer demonstrates that perfectly.
It’s hardly shocking news that the world’s biggest clubs are touring the world chasing every last dollar, to the potential detriment of competitive advantage by draining their players energy and taking games away from local supporters to satisfy the global fan’s desire to consume their team in the flesh. Real Madrid are hopping around the world to squeeze every last return they can on their Ronaldo investment, to nobody’s surprise, and it’s a path well-worn by others.
Celtic manager Tony Mowbray recently complained about his club’s pre-season fixture list, which includes a gruelling trip to Australia followed by the “Wembley Cup” shortly before they begin their Champions League campign this month. “Let’s not disguise it — this is a tough trip,” he said. “For physical preparation, I wouldn’t, personally, have taken it on, but I understand why. Manchester United do it every year, going to Asia or America to sell their brand. The bottom line is that Celtic is a global football club that does have a lot of supporters in parts of the world. I don’t sit here and stamp my feet and get upset about it.”
Global branding is of course the imperative for Celtic, Real Madrid and Manchester United in their pre-season scheduling. When David Gill responded to criticism that Manchester United were putting themselves in danger by ignoring Foreign Office advice to play a lucrative friendly in Jakarta just cancelled after the bombing there today, he was clear about their priorities. “We are very disappointed to have to cancel because Indonesia is an important market for us,” he said.
Friendlies have played an important role in the development of football worldwide. The tours of British teams in organised football’s early decades demonstrated the sport to locals just learning the game around the world, leaving lasting legacies in names, colours and styles of play in many unusual places. But now, even countries with established leagues are rolling over to support the globe-trotting of the likes of Real Madrid, shunting aside actual competitive games to roll out the red carpet — or even an entire new grass pitch.
When Real Madrid signed up to visit Toronto FC on August 7th, the Canadian ownership group MLSE announced it was pulling out all the stops: a temporary grass field will be installed to satisfy the Spaniards wishes to avoid playing on FieldTurf and the team rescheduled an MLS match set for August 9th against Red Bull New York, moving it up to June 13th.
Many Toronto fans were livid about the changes and the blatant cash grab at the expense of the regular season competition (not least because the Madrid friendly would not be one of the bonus games in their season ticket package). As Toronto FC blogger Ben Knight put it, the sudden move “not only scrambled summer weekend plans for 16,000 season ticket holders on cruelly short notice, it also left the club with only one MLS home game in each of July, August and September.”
How are supporters ever supposed to take the Major League Soccer regular season seriously when it’s clear the leadership of teams and the league has other priorities?
One could argue that this is Real Madrid, after all, and the league needs the high-profile games and the income to survive (though MLSE aren’t exactly paupers). But it’s not even the decision itself, it’s the lack of compunction about rescheduling the competitive match to accommodate a friendly that stings.
In Ireland, Real Madrid are playing another high-profile friendly this week against Shamrock Rovers. Preparations for the match have led to the postponement of an Irish league fixture, but Shamrock’s chairman Jonathan Roche does at least have the decency to express regret that the friendly is interfering with competitive play:
“We’re very disappointed in hindsight. If we’d known this was going to happen we wouldn’t have agreed to play Real Madrid,” Roche said. “It was mooted last Friday, and since then the FAI has tried its utmost to sort things out, but the council insisted that the game couldn’t go ahead on safety grounds. It’s an alarm bell to us, and presumably the FAI, that something like this could happen.
“This could have an effect on our friendlies going forward. There is no reason why the Sligo game couldn’t go on, but clearly we can’t allow friendly games to be interfering with out league campaign,” Roche concluded.
It’s frightening for the future of MLS that it’s unthinkable MLSE or Don Garber would say a similar thing; in the long-term, having a league everyone takes seriously as a sacrosanct priority is far more important than the occasional cash grab against Real Madrid. MLS should be careful not to get too friendly too often.