Is it inevitable that Premier League matches will be played on foreign soil?

We explore the renewed calls for Premier League matches to be played on foreign soil

General view at the West Ham United v Manchester City EPL match, at the London Stadium, London, UK on 16th September, 2023.

Many football fans pride themselves on travelling ‘over land and sea’ in support of their club. Points are clocked up as proof of their dedication, rewarding them with first dibs on the most in-demand tickets.

Perhaps tellingly, no points are required to join West Ham on their summer tour of America. The inaugural Stateside Cup is advertised as ‘Three Premier Teams. Three Premier Venues. One Exciting Series.’

Now, I’m envious of anyone heading stateside, not because they might be the first to glimpse Luis Guilherme in claret and blue but because the Sunshine State of Florida is a far more appealing destination than my planned summer sojourn to Cardiff, which has only even been attractive when standing in for Wembley but does at least complete the family’s UK capitals checklist.

If I could afford to fly the family to Florida in July then there’d be arguments over watching West Ham or going to Disneyland. And in fairness, I’d probably concede defeat easier than David Moyes in a cup tie against Liverpool. Because why go halfway around the world to experience something that’s the same as what’s on your doorstep?

In my debut tome, Fortune’s Always Hiding: From Stratford to Seville, I confess to having rarely visited Upton Park even when I lived down Barking Road. I’d have liked to have gone far more often than I did, but the cost of Premier League football sadly precluded it. The same sob story applies to the European tours of recent years. Seville, Viborg, Prague – any one of them would have been special to me.

And what makes European football special is a combination of rarity and reward – the club has earned the right to extra matches in unfamiliar locations, and so have the fans. Having been spoilt by three successive years of Europa League or Europa Conference excursions, there was a sense from some parts of the fanbase that the demands of European football were becoming a bit of a drag.

Imagine, then, having to travel more than twice the distance, at who knows what cost, to take in a standard three-pointer against Fulham! The primary argument against Premier League games being played abroad is that it takes supporters for mugs.

Since moving out of Canning Town and becoming acquainted with the North West Hammers, I marvel at just how many follow the team home and away, with home-match trains from Crewe providing some perspective on the ‘stop’ and ‘go’ signs back to Stratford. I certainly have no wish to cast anyone who’s put far more cash into the club’s coffers than I have as ‘mugs’, but it’s hopefully fair to note that fan is short for ‘fanatic’ and the business plans of club executives have long been predicated on milking their fanaticism.

Club accounts, however, indicate that matchday revenue pales in comparison to global TV rights. Hence renewed calls from American owners, who tend to view clubs as franchises rather than bastions of the community, to further monetise the global fanbase by playing games abroad.

We live in a globalised society and, having swapped the streets of Newham for the more picturesque surroundings of Chester, I’ve not exactly gone global but 200 miles from ‘home’ is far enough that I’m probably no more in touch with life in Stratford than the Chicago Hammers, the Nashville Hammers, the Saint Louis Hammers or any other fan group separated by an ocean as well as an arduous journey along the creaking railways or jammed motorways of Great Britain.

The beauty of the online world, however, is that it gives us more ways to connect to the clubs we love, no matter where in the world we are. Perversely, moving away probably enriched my connection to West Ham, having always been an irregular visitor to Upton Park anyway; I began blogging about club affairs as a means of staying connected to my roots and any return south to the London Stadium has acquired the air of a pilgrimage – football is a religion, I’m just not a regular church attendee.

One of globalisation’s selling points is convenience, and if West Ham came to play a one-off match – friendly or competitive – at the Deva Stadium, down the road from where I am now, then I’d be there in a shot. True, we play every season at Anfield, Goodison, Old Trafford and the Etihad, which are hardly an insurmountable distance, but the take-up of away tickets means I’m reliant on grabbing an elusive spare.

What I suppose I’m getting at is that I empathise with the appetite from displaced Hammers for a travelling show. Which is exactly what the Stateside Cup is – a nice pre-season bonus before the serious stuff starts. But faraway fans are not the lifeblood of the club. And to ask those seasoned followers who trek here, there and everywhere to stump up another substantial chunk of their hard-earned cash to see a competitive game played on another continent is taking the piss on a grand scale.

The whole 39th game concept remains a woolly one. How would the extra round of matches be allocated? When in the season would they be played? Early in January was once mooted, on the basis that a warm-weather holiday might be welcome, although what this might mean for the vaunted winter break is anyone’s guess.

Not to mention the calendar clash with the third round of the already devalued FA Cup. The late David Gold, then chairman of Birmingham City, was one of the first to endorse proposals, his support explained by the fact that bigger clubs were already exploiting foreign markets and this idea would distribute the revenue evenly among all 20 clubs.

The Football Supporters’ Federation were quick to brand it Gam£39 based on the obvious financial motivation. The same organisation’s Twenty’s Plenty campaign has had some success in reducing costs for travelling fans but the ticket price can be a fraction of travelling or, in an increasing number of cases thanks to the primacy of TV coverage, accommodation costs.

Liverpool chairman Tom Werner recently put all this back on the agenda by declaring that he is ‘determined’ to see a Premier League match held in New York City. Even though principal owner John Henry was sensible enough to distance himself from it, following a not so quiet word from the Liverpool Supporters’ Board, the idea won’t go away. In fairness to Werner, he’s also talked of subsidised travel for the die-hards.

And there’s the rub: Werner wants to export the atmosphere, seemingly without realising the extent to which money men such as himself are killing it. Tourists versus ‘legacy fans’ has become a theme of modern football. Who are the tourists at the Stateside Cup? The West Ham, Palace and Wolves fans with their passports tucked in their pockets, or the local soccer enthusiasts? The same question applies to the 39th game concept.

A quick look at ticket availability for the summer tour shows that the good people of Jacksonville and Tampa perhaps don’t view us as particularly massive given the swathes of free seats and closed upper tiers. Satellite fan groups are blowing bubbles the world over but they’re still small in number compared to Manchester United’s overseas army.

Sullivan would no doubt contest that this is why foreign excursions are necessary, to establish brand identity, and the dollar signs probably flash before his eyes when he sees the London Stadium hosting Major League Baseball’s London Series. American sports have successfully been exported and there’s an argument that we should reciprocate. But how desirable is a cultural exchange that breeds homogeny and risks diluting atmosphere?

I have no idea how many Mets fans have visited Stratford but I’d be keen to know how the experience compared to their own Citi Field or old Shea Stadium. Sport is generally best enjoyed in its natural habitat; when in America, I’d rather watch one of their national sports, even if Messi has added some allure to the MLS. Similarly, a proper London derby is a better advert for the Premier League than one played in front of thousands who don’t understand the geography.

As far as I’m concerned, tourists are welcome at the London Stadium, but they should never outnumber the legacy fans, which is what happens when the legacy fans are turned into tourists. A fair compromise is to give the Community Shield to the foreign market: a competitive showcase for English football that most English fans can give or take.

Perhaps renaming it the Charity Shield would be apt. And for West Ham fans, the fact that taking part in it is a once-in-a-generation experience might entice them to travel!

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