Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Far East of Anfield: Liverpool in Asia 2015

This appears in the Monday, July 20, 2015 edition of the Business Mirror.

The Far East of Anfield
by rick olivares

When Liverpool Football Club visited Thailand last July 12-14, it was the sixth time in the new millennium that the English club went to this part of the world. 

The trip was a hastily organized one as Kuala Lumpur and Macau were the previously announced cities for their Southeast Asia leg. However the deal for the latter fell through and Bangkok immediately agreed to host the Premier League squad. Why not? Thailand is home to the most number of Liverpool supporters in the world outside their native England.

Through the graces of Standard Chartered Bank, the club’s global and official sponsor, I was able to attend many of the team’s functions in Bangkok from a press conference to clinics to interviews with its legends not to mention the friendly match itself. And it was as always a great experience even if the rains came crashing down. With the humidity obviously affecting the performance of Liverpool, a heavy rain came crashing down by halftime significantly cooling off not only the stadium but also Bangkok. The game picked up in intensity and skill after. While most of the media retreated to the covered confines of the Rajamangala Stadium, I stayed put in my seat taking in the rain with a few others. “Now that’s a real fan,” remarked Jet Namwong, a Thai Standard Chartered executive, to me as he went down to the media section to bring me over to the media room for the post-match press conference.

Years ago, through my own initiative with the club, I was able to wrangle an interview with former manager Rafael Benitez in Singapore. During a club’s Kuala Lumpur sojourn in 2012, I was able to attend a function with players like Jamie Carragher and Andy Carroll.

While trophies have become scarce in the last 20 years, Liverpool still enjoys incredible popularity among fans thanks to talismanic players in the last decade like Michael Owen, Steven Gerrard, Fernando Torres, and Luis Suarez to name a few. And they have been the first club to embrace its fan base outside England having made regular tours to North America, Australia, Europe, and Southeast Asia in that span. And since the significant inroads made by Liverpool in emerging markets and increasing its fanbase, other clubs, not only from England but also Spain and France have also gone on tour. 

As usual, I did a survey among fans in attendance and not only were there fans from Thailand but also from (not in particular order) Vietnam, Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, Australia, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Hong Kong.

During my first ever trip to Anfield, Liverpool’s home field, last September 2014, I met fans who flew all the way from South Africa, India, Germany, the Netherlands, and from other parts of England. It was incredible not only for the experience but also for connecting with others who made their pilgrimage.

A survey on LFC’s Facebook page last November of 2014 about fan engagement depicted some surprising results  and there are a lot of things to glean from it.

Liverpool FC Facebook-registered fan base:
1  Thailand 3.5 million fans
2  Indonesia 2.5 million fans
3  United Kingdom 1.7 fans 
4  Malaysia 1.2 million fans 
5  India 1 million fans
6  Egypt 960,000 fans
7  Turkey 675,000 fans
8  Mexico 670,000 fans
9  Brazil 650,000 fans
10           USA 600,000 fans

Digressing for a moment, in the Philippines, there are a lot of fans of the club but there is no official count as no supporters club is not yet recognized by Liverpool FC. Hopefully, it will be soon! But some notable fans include past and present Azkals like Chad Gould, Rob Gier, Chieffy Caligdong, and national team manager, Dan Palami.

Back to the survey, three of those countries are from Southeast Asia and they are in the Top Five. Five are from the Asian region if you include India and Egypt. 

Of the 10, only two, India and the USA, aren’t considered football mad-countries although they are viewed as emerging markets. 

Six countries have played in the FIFA World Cup — UK (as England), Egypt, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, and the USA.

While Turkey has no official state religion, about 96% of its population is Muslim. And thus, four countries on the list are Muslim including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Egypt. 

It is incredible to see a LFC fan base in Mexico and Brazil where the sport is a religion. If you are to ask what is the most popular football side in Mexico you’d be hard-pressed to guess who it would be. For Brazil, one can drop Santos FC’s name on account of Pele and Neymar but it is actually Flamengo. Liverpool’s popularity in Brazil and other parts of the world is a testament to the draw of the English Premier League. 

It should be noted that during the 1950 World Cup Final between Brazil and Uruguay, close to 200,000 people packed the MaracaƱa Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. But that is national fervor in a hotbed of a region of rivalries. When Liverpool played the Melbourne Victory in Australia two years ago, 95,000 Aussies packed the venue! That is quite a draw possibly the single biggest number to see a LFC match. 

In a 2013 survey by Bleacher Report, they cited Liverpool as the seventh most influential football club in the world (once upon a time where trophies were a regular acquisition at Anfield they were number one).

Surprised at the “small” number from the UK? You shouldn’t be. For fans who live outside the UK, Facebook and social media is the most convenient way for them to express themselves or try and be a part of the action. Fans in the UK have a different way of expressing themselves by going to the matches and pubs, or by purchasing the merchandise or fanzines sold around the stadium. 

I have been a fan since 1979 and have seen the club seven times live across three continents — North America, Asia, and Europe. I have over three dozen Liverpool kits, a number of scarves, magazines, and other merchandise. But I do not engage all the time on social media as I do have quite a lot of other things to do.

And so it is with LFC in Bangkok. It was fun and memorable but I also wish that we in the Philippines — especially for my fellow Reds fans — had a taste of this. When I informed former LFC star Luis Garcia that the side had fans in the Philippines, he looked pleasantly surprised. When I asked if it was possible he could come down over to the Philippines, he answered, “Why not? I never thought I’d be down here in Bangkok or Asia as a Liverpool ambassador. It is good to be associated with this historic and famous club."

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