Have you ever had that moment in your life where it takes an incident – big or small – to wake up a dormant belief within you? This happened to me last week.
I was walking down the street and saw a few kids, hardly between 8-10 years of age, hanging around outside their apartment building, a couple of them wearing Barca jerseys. Hardly surprising, I thought, La Liga is a lot more popular in this country than any other league; I’ve moved to Saudi Arabia recently. I was wearing the Arsenal cup jersey from last season. As I came close to them, the following exchange took place:
Kid: As-salaam-alaikum![Peace be upon you]
Me: Wa-laikum-as-salam![And upon you be peace]
This is the customary greeting amongst Muslims, it’s like our hello. Nice kids, I thought to myself; but, as I walked past them:
Kid #2: Arba’a sifr![4-0!]
Rest of the kids: Hahahahaha! Arba’a sifr! Arba’a sifr![Hahahahaha! 4-0! 4-0!]
I ignored them and continued walking because I had no reason to react! Why on earth were they taunting me with chants of 4-0?! Yes, Barca beat Real Madrid 4-0 recently, what made them think I support Real Madrid?!
Then it struck me – the common sponsor on the shirt. Both teams are sponsored by Emirates airline. Moreover, I went online to do some research and look what I found:
Yes, they looked at my jersey in a very simplistic manner – who can blame them? Moreover, considering the popularity of the two Spanish giants in the country, the kids could also hardly be blamed for assuming that I’m a supporter of their enemy.
Can you hazard a guess as to which dormant belief was roused from its sleep?
Arsenal need to do well in Europe.
I’ve always believed the club needs to do well in Europe but domestic success should be priority. European success wouldn’t feel right, in my opinion, if we finished 5th or 6th in the league in the same season.
However, the European success I’ve yearned for was a desire driven by glory and Arsenal becoming a European giant over time. The interaction with the kids offered me another perspective to consider i.e. other than glory; as to why success in Europe may become even more vital in the coming years.
The Bitter Truth
There was an underlying bitter truth to the little interaction was that the Arsenal may have become a global name; but, they still have a long way to go in a global perspective.
Alright, I may be over reacting because this wake-up call is based on the preferences of one country only; but, there may be a case of comparing Arsenal’s marketability to Real Madrid, Barca, Bayern Munich, and even Manchester United.
The answer to that case, in my opinion, lies not only in domestic success but also and more of European success.
Rise to Fame
Football has become so commercial and to remain competitive, clubs need a maximum number of revenue streams. Right, you already know all this.
One of the revenue streams is the global fan base; but, the global fan base is one broad category as a revenue stream. You can break that down into:
- TV revenue
- Live attendance [indirect]
To be honest, I’m not sure if there are more revenue streams to be created from the global fan base but the ones in the list are definitely there.
These revenue streams, at a global level, only exist for a club if they are able to generate that sort of demand; the demand from people around the world to want to watch and be associated with the club somehow.
How does a club achieve that? By rising to fame and remaining famous.
So, how do these clubs rise to fame from a global perspective?
Yes and no.
Yes, winning the league may get a club in the ears of the global fan base; but it also depends on which league you’re playing in to determine how sought after your club may be by the global fan base.
So, how is a league determined to be more prestigious, or deemed to be better than the others by fans?
The Champions League or the European Cup of yore became the easiest measure to determine, whether accurately or not, which leagues are the better ones.
After all, European competition was about pitting the continent’s best against each other. If it’s the top teams of certain leagues that are consistently reaching the quarterfinals or even semis, surely those leagues must be among the best?
Again, that’s not a definitive argument but more of how we, and generations of past, may have connected the dots in their head whether consciously or unconsciously.
Real Madrid may have set the tone in the late ‘50s but with limited television coverage, surely the world may have not been so aware of the Spanish giants? Only a historian can answer that!
However, if we think of famous or big clubs of Europe, for a global fan; especially those who reside outside Europe, the names that pop into mind are:
- AC Milan
- Bayern Munich
- Manchester United
- Real Madrid
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I could include Liverpool in there as well. I believe the 80’s and onwards, when television coverage may have been more extensive or at least media coverage was more extensive, Liverpool’s success in the late 70s to the mid-80s definitely must have seen a spike in the number of ‘Pool supporters worldwide.
Between ’89-’95, AC Milan turned up in the final 5 times, winning 3 of them. The next 3 years saw Juventus reach the final 3 times, winning once. That’s two Italian teams dominating Europe for a period of 8 years; during an age when media coverage was becoming even more extensive compared to the 80s.
Manchester United were setting the Premier League ablaze for most of the 90s and even the 2000s, would it be safe to say that their global popularity started to surge after they won the treble in ’98-’99?
Teams from Spain, England, and Italy consistently reached the final or the semis during the last 15 years; although the Italians have fallen away in that regard in recent years.
Barcelona under Rijkaard and then especially under Pep really took the world by storm by their enthralling football and dominance that came with it. Again, consistent European success by the club. Was Barcelona as popular, globally, back in the 90s or even before?
Real Madrid won 3 Champions League titles in the space of 5 years between the late ‘90s and the turn of the century. Add their Galacticos strategy to the mix and you can understand why they also became popular.
Bayern Munich have thrown themselves in the mix in the last five years along with Dortmund, and now a major sports channel network in India and Pakistan’s national network’s sports channel air the Bundesliga!
Yes, these clubs also have a rich history of success; but so does Ajax, where has it been since the mid-90s?
So, if the club is doing well in a league that is determined to be a top league, and it does well in Europe i.e. reach the QFs or the SFs or the final consistently, its level of fame is bound to rise.
Which leads us to the question of how Arsenal has managed to build a strong global fan base despite not exactly meeting the criteria set above?
The Premier League
At a global level, I believe the Premier League may have set the tone early on in terms of accessibility to viewers worldwide, by early on I mean the mid-90s. I don’t know how or if I’m even right; but, I do know that Super Sport – a leading sports channel network in South Africa – covered the Premier League early on. I knew this sitting in Saudi Arabia when I was a child, then in Pakistan when I was a bit older; I’m sure it must have covered other countries in Africa as well.
There is something about the Premier League which makes it more exciting, people talk about the pace of the football and the crowds and I agree with that; but there does seem to be an X factor.
So, you receive Premier League coverage and you have this team – Arsenal – that consistently plays wonderful football and consistently challenges for the Premier League title. Again, these are the early Wenger years I’m talking about. What’s there not to fall in love with? Since those early years, the football has remained pleasing to the eye and Champions League qualification has always been achieved.
However, at the same time, Chelsea’s popularity has risen globally as well. The Blues have done it by combining domestic success with consistent performances in Europe. Sure, I’m very judgemental of the people who chose to support Chelsea during this time period; but, I cannot deny the commercial opportunity that the club has created for itself. It’s not a European giant; but, in recent years people would probably place a bet on the Blues doing better than the Gunners in Europe. They’d probably believe that Chelsea have a better chance of matching the likes of Barcelona or Bayern than Arsenal. It’s the bitter truth.
Not Just About Glory
Being a club that is self-sufficient i.e. it plays its way to earn money, consistently better performances in Europe will become necessary to increase the demand for the club. Domestic success will always be important, but this extra step will be necessary.
Better performances in Europe will not only increase the global fan base or at least global demand but also help in attracting top talent. Again, attracting readymade stars is a bonus but having stars in a team also helps attract fans to your team. Luckily for Arsenal during Wenger’s years, the club has made a host of stars out of nobodies! The romantic in me wants that to continue.
The glory is always paramount; but, in an age when financial competition is stiffening, this must be kept in mind as well. It’s not something I would say to players of course; but, Wenger needs to give more thought to this if he hasn’t already. Of course, the board should keep this mind for the post-Wenger era as well.
What Will it Take?
Usually I hate posts like this one because they tell you what’s needed, but not how to get what’s needed.
My only hope is that the reason for the ‘what’s needed’ i.e. European success, was something a little different to your other reasons!
I don’t know what it will take; it could be personnel, it could be tactics, it could be luck! I’ve heard plenty of fans say that a different approach is required for Europe; we can’t play the same way. Well, our approach has faced the same consequences domestically as well. However, domestically, we seem to have rectified those issues this year but not so much in Europe. So, in my opinion, there isn’t a certain way to play in Europe, it’s all down to the opposition and how we approach them. Knock-out games may require a certain approach, but not Europe.
Wrapping it Up
I write this just under twelve hours before kick-off versus Olympiakos, I’m not sure if I’ll get to watch the game as my hotel doesn’t have the channel and its internet’s speed is as good as non-existent. However, come what may tonight, Europe needs to be taken seriously very soon if Arsenal is to elevate its status to a big club outside England.
On a side note, I find it very interesting that smaller clubs go on tours to Asia and what not; I can’t help but wonder if anyone out there wants to watch them and whether or not it helps those clubs gain more supporters in those countries. In an age where television coverage was rare, it would have made sense for such teams because people out there wouldn’t know what to expect; but now, if it isn’t a big club or Arsenal coming to town, why would I want to watch anyone else?
Yes, advancing further in the Champions League brings in more revenue from television rights; but, the bigger picture of becoming a bigger club in both a continental and global context must be kept in mind. The commercial opportunity is there, waiting to be exploited.