EPL TALK: Liverpool visit must give Asian fans what they deserve

·Contributor
·5 min read
Fans of the English Premier League giants Liverpool during their pre-season match in Singapore in 2009.
Fans of the English Premier League giants Liverpool during their pre-season match in Singapore in 2009. (PHOTO: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

SINGAPOREANS are purring. The Thais are buzzing. They know what’s coming. They saw the evidence at Anfield. Liverpool turned a Champions League semi-final into a playground dance. The speed, the glorious, dizzying speed, from Andy Robertson, to Luis Diaz, onto Mo Salah and then Sadio Mane. It’s addictive, hypnotic and perhaps the most relentlessly effective playing model the game has ever witnessed.

And the Reds just keep going, through the Carabao Cup (won), the FA Cup (in the final), the Champions League (almost in the final) and the English Premier League (a point from top), this malleable art instillation from Jurgen Klopp feels like it’s never going to end. They’ll play this way forever.

Until they turn up in Bangkok on 12 July. And it’ll stop.

And it’ll stay stopped when they face Crystal Palace in Singapore on 15 July.

But that’s OK. There’s an implicit understanding with pre-season trips to Asia, an unsigned pact between elite football and eager football fans. Gegenpressing will give way to a gentle stroll in the equatorial sunshine, with an emphasis on conditioning work and avoiding injury.

Klopp’s Liverpool and Patrick Vieira’s Crystal Palace are going to treat the excursion like a trip to a gushing relative, the one that goes heavy on the treats and the compliments. The trip isn’t unpleasant. On the contrary, it’s rather enjoyable. But there’s an underlying eagerness to return to business as soon as possible.

Singaporean Reds, like their Thai counterparts, will accept this. They’ll even fork out for tickets that start at $149 in Singapore (the Bangkok game is more expensive).

Such a prospect raises the accusation of gullibility. Here they come again, landing at Changi Airport, first class, another EPL batch ready to make a withdrawal from tens of thousands of doe-eyed ATMs before heading back to proper pre-season training in the UK.

But it doesn’t work like that anymore, certainly not in Singapore, and perhaps not anywhere in light of recent events. But let’s focus on the city-state first.

Singapore’s evolving relationship with pre-season EPL tours is genuinely insightful, providing a microcosm of the island’s broader connection to the league.

In 2001, Beckham-mania and the Class of '92 ruled, and cable TV packages were bringing live football to these shores in a fashion never previously possible. Everything dovetailed. Manchester United and Liverpool’s resurgence mirrored the EPL’s global explosion, the serendipity was extraordinary and the timing perfect to host both clubs.

Singaporeans would’ve accepted anything to see such colossal talents in the flesh in 2001, which was rather fortunate because they got barely anything on the pitch.

Liverpool’s then-manager Gerard Houllier took one look at the shocking surface at Kallang and ordered his players to conduct a pedestrian passing exercise against Singapore’s Lions.

Meanwhile, Man United manager Sir Alex Ferguson confused his friendly with Cirque du Soleil, and played goalkeeper Fabian Barthez on the wing because, you know, it was a laugh.

Former Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez (right) playing as a winger against the Singapore selection side in their pre-season match in 2001.
Former Manchester United goalkeeper Fabien Barthez (right) playing as a winger against the Singapore selection side in their pre-season match in 2001. (FILE PHOTO: Reuters)

The cheers from the stands seemed to validate Ferguson’s perception. The crowd turned up for a circus, not a football match. It was a joke, confirming every worst stereotype. Those gullible Asian fans, eh? They’ll pay daft money to watch anything in an EPL jersey.

Not anymore.

If there was a tipping point of sorts, it came in October 2019, when the travelling roadshow of football franchises arguably reached its nadir. Brazil, Senegal and Nigeria all turned up at the National Stadium. The fans didn’t. Half-empty attendances of 20,621 and 20,385 were initially blamed on Singapore’s apparent lack of appreciation for Selecao technicians.

In fact, the opposite was true. Singaporeans knew exactly what they were paying for. Tickets up to $299 were judged too much for an exhibition of walking football among unfamiliar squad players and indifferent brand names.

Asian football fans understand the pact. To quote Apollo Creed’s trainer, this is supposed to be an exhibition. No one expects a thunderous, visceral encounter to rival Ivan Drago killing Creed in Rocky IV. Just don’t take liberties.

Asian football fans understand the pact. To quote Apollo Creed’s trainer, this is supposed to be an exhibition. No one expects a thunderous, visceral encounter to rival Ivan Drago killing Creed in Rocky IV. Just don’t take liberties.

Post-pandemic, post-European Super League and post-Roman Abramovich even, there’s been a shift in attitude among EPL fan bases. Perceptions and priorities have changed. Fans demand – and deserve – greater inclusion, across all facets of the game. Whether it’s direct involvement in the running of EPL clubs or time spent taking selfies outside a Singaporean hotel, fans expect to be included. They want to belong.

And Liverpool, to their immense credit, understand this more than most. Apart from that shocking misstep with the European Super League fiasco, their community engagement and empathic relationship with the city of Liverpool is just wonderful.

Now let’s see the Reds go global. Talk to fans around Kallang. Acknowledge those sweltering outside hotels. Sign merchandise. Take selfies. Hundreds of them, if necessary. Take turns. Spread the load. Be inclusive. Enjoy the game. It's a pre-season friendly in the tropics, not basic military training in Tekong. So smile and wave, boys, smile and wave. Look like you all actually want to be here.

For once, Liverpool’s slogan fits. As pre-season tours go, this means more. The pandemic locked down Asian countries and cut them adrift. So there will be full houses, a celebration of the communal event itself, whatever the ticket price.

But there must be a value added. No one anticipates a spectacle to rival a Champions League semi-final, just a sincere and warm acknowledgement of the people who matter most, now more than ever.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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