Last Tuesday over 50,000, many of them in transparent raincoats, ignored the persistent drizzle to see Manchester United open their season with a 4-0 rout of Liverpool at Rajamangala Stadium and win the Bangkok Century Cup. As Europe’s elite use July for the dual purpose of trying to harness growing markets and warming up for the season, Liverpool were also at Singapore’s National Stadium on Friday where they beat Crystal Palace 2-0.
A clutch of Premier League teams including Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City will be in USA this month where a Clasico will be hosted by Las Vegas, the second time since Florida in 2017 that Real Madrid and Barcelona are playing outside Spain. Tottenham Hotspur visited South Korea because of Son Heung-min, got Sevilla to join and will play Roma in Israel. Paris St-Germain are in Japan on a three-game tour against J-League teams. United beat Melbourne Victory 4-1 in front of 74,157 people on Friday and then Crystal Palace 3-1 on Tuesday with 76,500 watching. Both games were at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
So why don’t they come to India which has passionate fan clubs of Europe’s elite teams? Manchester United alone have 35 million fans, Phil Lynch, CEO Media, Manchester United, has said. The corresponding number for Liverpool in 2021, according to former commercial director Matt Scammell, was 96 million. While everyone talks about India being an important market – Scammell and Lynch did last year, David Gill did in 2008 when he was Manchester United CEO, as did PSG in 2016– no one’s visited with a team so far.
“That’s because no one in India has thought of something like this,” said Bhaswar Goswami. He is the executive director of the Kolkata-based Celebrity Management Group (CMG) which organises football friendlies. CMG got Argentina and Venezuela for a friendly in Kolkata in 2011 which was also Lionel Messi’s first international as full-time skipper.
Over the phone from Bangkok where he was part of Manchester United’s entourage, Goswami said there was no reason for India to not warm up to a game between “two quality teams.” On a WhatsApp call from Munich Martin Haegele, former head of international relations at Bayern Munich, said he wasn’t so sure. “India is probably not there yet,” he said, drawing on his experience of bringing Bayern Munich to New Delhi in 2011 for Bhaichung Bhutia’s farewell game. That’s why Bayern, who also came to Kolkata in 2008 for Oliver Kahn’s last game in a Bayern shirt, have offices in Bangkok and Beijing but not in India, he said.
Cost could be a reason why no one’s thought of getting Premier League titans to face-off in India. Including appearance money for teams, Goswami said the game in Bangkok cost $10 million (approx. ₹80 crore). Sponsors can be a challenge because only companies with products not in conflict with the clubs’ wide array of commercial partners can be signed, he said.
Even if you get sponsors, Goswami said the organisers did in Bangkok, tickets will be expensive. “The cheapest seats went for 5,000 baht (approx. ₹10,888) and the most expensive for nearly 69,000 baht ( ₹1.5 lakh),” he said. The package included a show by K-pop star Jackson Wang and a performance by popular Thai singer Mili.
An AFP report quoted a fan as saying that though her 15,000 baht (nearly ₹32,660) ticket was expensive it was worth it because she got to see Mo Salah in person.
Haegele isn’t sure that will happen in India, citing the 35,000-odd that came in New Delhi to see a full-strength Bayern under Jupp Heynckes in 2011. “You need to have the right people, the right backing from the government. We were very disappointed that the game wasn’t sold out. Our sponsors then didn’t back us for more projects in India.”
Goswami agreed that organising a game is difficult in India. “You need to please so many powerful people with freebies. We organised an Argentina game at Etihad some years back and things went off so smoothly,” he said.
If pitched right, Goswami said he is sure India will turn up in numbers like Bangkok did. Tickets for Indian Premier League (IPL) games are not cheap but not many go unsold, he said. The IPL 2022 final had tickets for ₹50,000 with the most expensive costing ₹65,000. In 2011, tickets for the Argentina-Venezuela game worth ₹5,000 found takers as did private boxes priced at ₹1.5 lakh.
Tasked with conceiving a project that would have Manchester United play in India next year, possibly as part of a four-country Asian swing with stops in Malaysia, Indonesia and China, Goswami said, “you need to make this a regular feature. Then despite the high cost of tickets, you will get an audience.” Like they do in Bangkok where this was Liverpool’s seventh visit.
“It is true that we find it easier to do games abroad but now that Man United want it to happen in India, as a partner it is our duty to give them a proposal,” said Goswami.