You don’t need to be in Jakarta long before realizing that the month of July promises to be a very special one for fans of English football.
Despite a popular domestic league, the Premier League has grown in popularity over the last few years. However, English clubs, normally quick to sense opportunities to earn a few extra pounds, have been slow to cash in on ventures within the country.
Manchester United were slated to come in 2009, but the team canceled their trip when their hotel was attacked by a suicide bomber. Last year, Everton were due to visit for the Java Cup along with Galatasaray, a Turkish football team, but they too cancelled for reasons that were never made clear but were probably money-oriented.
This month, however, Indonesian football fans will get their chance to watch international football stars with Jakarta seeing no less than three Premier League clubs passing through to play. Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool have scheduled visits, with each club pulling out all the stops to make sure their visit is a resounding success — off the field at least.
Arsenal has sent former midfielder and member of the unbeaten team of 2004, Freddie Ljungberg, to do some media work and to meet the fans. His trip was preceded with a widely publicized video showing a few players trying their hand at playing gamelan instruments.
Liverpool sent Robbie Fowler, a striker known as a God on Merseyside, to replicate Ljungberg’s media work here in Jakarta, while Chelsea, well, they appointed Jose Mourinho! A sure way to get your team's name in international headlines.
Indonesia is seeing many players from international teams, but it's Manchester United who are the most popular team in the country. While the team itself has so far been concentrating on visits to countries like Thailand and Australia, they are not ignoring Indonesia completely.
Manchester United Soccer School’s regional office is based in Singapore, but they have upped sticks and decamped to South Jakarta for a couple of weeks to host a few short holiday programs.
Despite this opportunity, however, not many people know that the 'biggest name in world football' is here. Marketing and promotion has been minimal, to say the least, with only a few leaflets dished out at a South Jakarta shopping malls. This lack in advertising isn’t what you would expect from such a media-savvy club. Though players like Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville were recently in Singapore to promote the school’s work there, the football team never bothered to send players to Indonesia.
Their silence has been deafening. With two large Manchester United supporters’ clubs in Jakarta, plus the fame of the brand itself, the lack of advertising for their football school seems a bit odd. Especially since South Jakarta is a busy market for soccer schools as it is home to many wealthy people, the school's target audience.
Manchester United have installed themselves in Lebak Bulus Stadium, where team coaches can be seen instructing a handful of kids as they complete their football exercises. But within a two mile radius, there are more established and better-advertised soccer academies that attract many more participants, including Arsenal's, a Brazilian themed school and a Super Soccer Skills course providing regular coaching throughout the year.
Players and representatives of Manchester United also can't fail to notice, unless they sleep from the airport to the hotel, the lack of city-wide promotional support for their team. Large billboards advertising Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool are everywhere, yet for United, the landscape is empty.
When Ljungberg and Fowler arrived in Jakarta, there were fans waiting to greet them at the airport. When United's coaches arrived at the airport, however, there was nobody there to greet them because nobody knew they were coming. In fact, the coaches could wander the malls in their free time and no one would even give them a second look even though one of them, Jorg Steinbrunner, has worked in Indonesia before with Medan Chiefs and Sidoarjo Deltras.
The disconnect between Manchester United and their Indonesian fan-base can easily be blamed on the team's arrogance. They are, after all, Premier League champions, and with such a massive amount of support in place you can’t help but understand that they may have taken the eye off the ball as far as having an Indonesian fan-base is concerned.
The brand is out there, yet individuals like Steinbrunner never really signed autographs when he was coaching local teams because Manchester United didn't capitalize on the opportunity. Had they put him in a United shirt and given him a United embossed name card perceptions would have changed — families want their picture taken with someone who represents United.
Ultimately, sending Steinbrunner was a golden opportunity for United, but they missed it.
The face of world football is changing as more and more people are discovering that other countries have similarly successful soccer leagues. The jerseys of Germany's top team, Bayern Munchen, are now more common in futsal arenas and malls. Paris Saint Germain’s recent inheritance of formerly being the team of David Beckham has resulted in the growth in sales of replica shirts, while middle-aged Manchester City fans proudly showing their team colors are still a fairly common sight.
In short, there are many football clubs who do tick the right boxes for an Indonesian fan looking to adopt an international team to support. Even if United don’t put in the leg work, others obviously are and if such a trend continues, Manchester United could possibly lose much support from one of the world's most populous football-crazy countries.
There are, however, plans for another United camp later in the year. By then, a new Premier League season will be up and running and United's name will undoubtedly dominate sports headlines. But in order for the camp to increase in popularity, Manchester United need to show better engagement with local support, or they may find other clubs catching up with them in terms of popularity.