There were reports recently that Indonesia had arranged a friendly game with the reserve team of Espanyol only for it to become apparent that the Spaniards had other commitments. This may have provoked the usual complaints that the PSSI does not really know what it is doing, but there are bigger issues at stake.
It is a habit of Asian clubs to play games against European club teams in the summer. The big boys such as Arsenal and Manchester United fly east in order to build their brands, support bases, and future revenue streams.
We all know how this plays out: A Premier League club lands in Kuala Lumpur or Beijing, the manager remarks with apparent wonder as to how passionate the fans are in this part of the world and how they would to give something back to their Asian fans.
In itself, it is highly dubious as to what benefit the local game receives from such visits but it has become a fixture of the summer months and it looks as if it is here to stay — even Arsene Wenger, a man publicly hostile to such trips in the past, has been in Malaysia with Arsenal for the past two summers.
If fans all over Asia want to pay extortionate prices for the privilege of seeing Premier League players start their pre-season preparations, though it is common for many of the big stars to be absent, in games that are played at not much more than walking pace, then it is their money and their business. You can’t help feeling that the situation would be better for all concerned if they spent their money on the local game but again, it is a free country.
But most Asian nations do this. European clubs tend to favour Southeast Asia but they have also been further east to Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul to be greeted very well indeed.
There is something more serious however. While Asian clubs playing European clubs is a slightly depressing reality that is here to stay, the practice of Asian national teams — especially those from south-east Asia — playing against European clubs is something different entirely.
What is a national team? It is the flagship of a country’s football scene and showcases that to the rest of the world. Indonesia, Malaysia or the Philippines represent the football folk of that country. They don’t have to be the best teams in the world but they should represent their nations as well as possible and always seek to make them proud. It is a role that should be nourished and protected. In short, it is the pinnacle. Kids should grow up dreaming of pulling on that national team shirt.
It also should set the standard for the rest of the country. It goes without saying that the national team should be the best team in the nation or at least should aspire to be. It is a special shirt, a sacred shirt and the people who look after it need to realise just what it means or what it should mean.
But a national team hosting a visiting European club, damages that brand. If Persija Jakarta want to play Espanyol, then it is their business but Indonesia? Indonesia should play other countries not clubs.
Of course, there are occasions when it can be possible. For example, if you head overseas for a major tournament and in the build-up, a club team is the only opposition available, then you do what you have to do to get ready for the real competition. But hosting club teams who are visiting your country to make money, that is a different thing entirely.
This is why is was sad to read the remarks of Football Association of Malaysia Vice-President and national team manager, Subahan Kamal when he told Reuters earlier in the summer about the plans to play English club teams.
“We in Malaysia are excited,” Kamal said. “It is not only the public and fans of Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea that are excited, even the management, the head coach, even the players are all very excited to play. I think this is the first country in the world that will play three (Premier League) giants in a week… not even Brazil have done that.”
Brazil wouldn’t want to do that. Brazil may travel around the globe to take on the highest bidders but the prospect of the national team hosting an English premier League team in Rio is not a realistic one.
Nobody can blame Malaysia for wanting games against teams from outside Southeast Asia – that has long been a problem – but there are other options than taking on disinterested European club sides who see it as a public relations/fund-raising exercise.
The national team should be protected.
John Duerden is a prolific football writer whose work has appeared in the Guardian, ESPN, the New York Times, and Sports Illustrated, among many other publications. His column, Top Corner, appears regularly on InterAKTV. Follow Johnny on Twitter for more football discussion.