The ‘festival of football’ nets profits for some but devalues the A-League

If you were one of the almost 75,000 fans at the MCG on Friday night watching Manchester United win 4-1 against Melbourne Victory, the experience probably ticked every box – outside of seeing wantaway star Cristiano Ronaldo.

There was even a sprinkling of former United stardom with Luis Nani making his debut for Melbourne Victory with a brief cameo off the bench. But for the game of football in Australia, did the match tick any boxes, or at least the right ones?

Such is the insatiable thirst for the money they provide to European clubs, these exhibition games aren’t going away any time soon. But for as long as they continue, the debate over the value of these games will roll on.

Part of the frustration stems from the fact the local team (if one is even involved, and seldom they are not) is relegated to the role of the Washington Generals: an opposition there for the sole purpose of making the visiting European giant look good.

The local side is almost always removed from any marketing. Very little (if any) effort is made to engage when the visiting team is in Australia (more effort is made to get a shot of a visiting player with Sherrin in hand) and they are often restricted from selling merchandise at these games. The home team are, quite literally, the sideshow.

In the eyes of the cynics, this demeans the local competition and further cements a widespread view among those likely to buy tickets that the A-League isn’t worth engaging with. The optimists, however, will tell you that these games provide an incredible platform for the local team and domestic league to win over fans who might otherwise be dismissive of their existence.

Melbourne Victory is no stranger to these high-profile exhibition games. Who could forget the match against Liverpool in 2013, with that spine-tingling rendition of You’ll Never Walk Alone? Victory even managed to defeat Juventus on penalties in 2016 in the short-lived International Champions Cup.

But throughout that time A-League membership and crowds have remained largely stagnant, even dropping in more recent years, while mainstream media interest has waned significantly. So the question again is, aside from further bloating the bank balance of clubs that don’t need it, what’s the point?

In total seven games will take place in Australia over the next week in what host broadcaster Channel 10 and Paramount+ is dubbing the ‘Winter Festival of Football’, which kicked off on Thursday evening on the Gold Coast, of all places, as Leeds United defeated Brisbane Roar 2-1. You can make it eight if you add in the Barcelona versus A-League All-Stars clash in Sydney back in May.

Eyes would water at the amount of taxpayer funds that have gone into bringing Barcelona, Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Leeds United and Aston Villa to Australia. Governments are seemingly falling over themselves to stage these matches. Little wonder when the Victorian Government announces that as many as 40 percent of ticket-holders for the Manchester United visit came from outside Victoria.

These matches are money spinners for State Governments as much as they are for the European clubs involved. But how much of that money gets reinvested into football?

In a sport crying out for investment in facilities, particularly in Queensland where the government seems determined to develop facilities for every sport other than football, imagine what could be achieved if governments invested that money into developing the sport within the communities they are elected to serve.

This problem is far from unique to Australia.

East and Southeast Asia has long been seen as fertile ground for football’s version of colonisation. So it is again this year with Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham and PSG among the European elite to visit this part of the world where the Premier League is omnipresent, smothering the local leagues who struggle to attract even a fraction of the same interest.

Scheduling can also be an issue, as expressed by Korean international Lee Seung-woo, a former La Masia starlet, who criticised the timing of Tottenham’s visit to Seoul to play a K League All-Stars team.

“The match against Tottenham is, of course, a good match and a good opportunity,” he told local media this week. “It will be a good opportunity for the fans to watch the match between Tottenham and Team K-League in Korea.

“But for the player, the schedule is disappointing. The players (in the K League) are playing in the most difficult situation at the moment. It would have been better if we had discussed the schedule in advance and dealt with it. The K League will benefit financially, but the damage is seen by the players.”

A capacity crowd of 60,000 turned out for an entertaining match, won 6-3 by Spurs, complete with two goals from local hero Son Heung-min, and everyone went home happy. But in a country like Australia where the domestic league averages crowds less than 5000, the question is whether these games actually do more harm than good for the local game.