The nearest Leicester City came to making a long-haul pre-season trip last summer involved a 66-mile excursion up the M1 which carried them into South Yorkshire and a game against Rotherham United.
Otherwise the Premier League champions in waiting did not move outside the Midlands and seemed more than content to limber up for the campaign with friendlies at Lincoln, Mansfield, Burton and Birmingham.
One extraordinary title win later Leicester’s summer horizons have widened to a once almost unimaginable degree. Suddenly Europe’s elite are queueing up for dates with Claudio Ranieri’s players, whose opponents now include Paris Saint-Germain in Carson, California, and Barcelona in Stockholm.
Such fixtures comprise part of the 2016 International Champions Cup, a pre-season extravaganza organised by the New York-based promoters Relevent Sports designed to delight merchandising departments, branding experts and commercial lawyers specialising in television rights.
Staged in 16 host cities spanning Australia, China, the United States and Europe, it involves the Premier League’s elite competing in separate mini-tournaments embracing assorted world zones. Whereas Tottenham play in the Australian arm – against Atlético Madrid, Juventus and Melbourne Victory – Manchester City and Manchester United join Borussia Dortmund in the China edition.
This latter section facilitates the reunion of those old friends Pep Guardiola and José Mourinho as the new managers of City and United find themselves renewing old acquaintance on the touchline at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium in what will be the first Manchester derby to be staged outside the UK.
Meanwhile Antonio Conte tries Mourinho’s old Chelsea tracksuit for size in the American and European sector, where the former Italy coach’s new team face Liverpool at Pasadena’s Rose Bowl, Real Madrid in Ann Arbor and Milan in Minneapolis.
Like Leicester, Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool find themselves playing in both the United States and Europe, where a Wembley meeting with Barcelona almost counts as a “home” fixture for the Merseyside club.
With games involving Premier League sides being televised from Albania to Argentina, Belarus to Burma, Canada to Kosovo, Taiwan to Thailand, Iceland to India and Malta to Malaysia, it is big business.
Football-wise few managers will take too much notice of the results (although Guardiola and Mourinho would doubtless prefer to emerge victorious in the Bird’s Nest) but, commercially, these matches are anything but meaningless as clubs strive to win hearts and minds while establishing toeholds in far-flung markets.
Two years ago, an 110,000 crowd saw Manchester United play Real Madrid in Michigan in a pre-season fixture, setting a record attendance for watching a football match in the United States. This probably explains why, striving to “crack America”, nine Premier League teams are crossing the Atlantic this summer.
With the once almost inexorable pulling power of east Asia apparently waning as clubs realise profits are far too easily debilitated by “piracy” in markets flooded by fake football merchandise, crossing “the pond” is the thing to do.
Unless you are Sam Allardyce, of course. After seeing his former West Ham squad drained by flying to New Zealand two summers ago, Sunderland’s manager urged Ellis Short, the club’s American owner, to allow the team to remain in Europe this summer. With the complaints of Dick Advocaat, Allardyce’s predecessor, about the ruinous effects of playing three games in North America and Canada in eight seemingly exhausting days last summer probably still echoing in his ears, Short took heed.
Although Sunderland will visit the New York Stadium it is the one in Rotherham. “It’s very important to us that we don’t travel too far so we’re staying in Europe,” says Allardyce who is taking his squad to France and Austria. “Going around the world – flying to places like America – isn’t right for any team to be doing when you’re building up to another massive season in the Premier League. Staying in Europe enables us to get the players as fit as we possibly can.”
Allardyce and Arsène Wenger rarely agree but it is safe to assume they are united on this issue. For many years Arsenal’s manager managed to restrict his squad’s summer travel to Austria but recently even he has bowed to commercial pressures and is duly preparing for a couple of games in California.
Indeed managerial concerns about the draining effect of long-haul flying and constantly switching time zones tend to be eclipsed by the reality that marquee names such as Manchester United or Liverpool are able to charge upwards of £1m to appear in certain pre-season games overseas.
This explains not only why Wenger’s “resistance movement” has faltered but why in the 10 years to 2014 Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool played 319 senior first XI pre-season matches with only 97 staged in England. No one seems overly bothered about depriving domestic fans of the chance to get first glimpses of new signings and see how tactics are shaping up as another campaign approaches.
Tellingly, just two Premier League clubs – Middlesbrough and Watford – are restricting their friendly action to games in England this summer.
Many Premier League counterparts flying to China or California – let alone Australia – would gladly swap summer schedules with Aitor Karanka’s players. Instead they can only glance enviously at international team-mates afforded extra time off following Euro 2016.
The absence of some stellar names – although everyone hopes Zlatan Ibrahimovic is back in time to make his Manchester United debut against Galatasaray in Gothenburg at the end of this month – dictates overseas fans will simply have to content themselves buying into the ever-burgeoning cult of the manager.
That possibly explains why Manchester City could not resist shoehorning a detour to Carlo Ancelotti’s Bayern Munich in en route to China, allowing Guardiola to make his bow against the club he has just left.
Then it’s on to Beijing’s Bird’s Nest and Mr Mourinho. Is Richard Scudamore’s bright idea about the Premier League’s “39th game” really dead in the water?
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010