THE LURE OF THE EAST

By Rob Hobson
Jun 18th, 2003

Question: When is a footballer not a footballer?

Answer: When he’s a marketable commodity

OK, let’s get the inevitable out of the way first. Real Madrid have finally got their man. According to the papers this morning, Goldenballs has signed for the world’s biggest football club in a reputed £25 million deal. Only £7 million will be paid upfront, with a further £12million coming in tranches over the following years and bonus allocations based on the club’s performance in the Champion’s League.

Manchester fans must be livid. For a player whose worth was touted only a year or so ago at around £40million, this is a serious climb-down. According to my paper, senior Old Trafford staff have admitted to “rudimentary errors” in the way they went about trying to inflate the price: surely they, like everyone else in the civilised world, could see that Beckham was never going to go to Camp Nou.

But what is this really all about? Is it about the sale of a footballing genius – possibly the greatest English player of his generation and his country’s salvation in recent competitive matches? Is it b******s. It’s about the latest chapter in the saga of arguably the most famous footballer who has ever lived, and one of the world’s most saleable commodities. A marketing icon who incites Beatles-esque fervour in his Far Eastern fans; the face of Pepsi, Adidas and, er, Castrol; the Gucci-clad, lion’s mane-sporting, thong-wearing God of the beautiful game. Analysts estimate that it will take Real Madrid less than two years to recoup their money through shirt sales alone. The vast majority of these shirt sales are expected to come from the Asian market.

So what has this got to do with the Blues? Well, everything. What looked to be like a standard silly season piece of “news” on a random website has been picked up on by a number of more reputable organs. Apparently, Hidetoshi Nakata has been strongly linked with a move to our beloved club. Whether this is a genuine rumour or a piece of Mirror nonsense is by the by. Nakata is an excellent target for Chelsea. Why do I think this? You have only to look at the rabid following of Japanese nationals in leagues around the world to understand why. The day that Ichiro Suzuki left Japan to bat for the Seattle Mariners baseball team saw a huge influx of Mariners merchandise into the shops of Tokyo and Osaka. Mariners games were broadcast nationally on Japanese television. The sense of pride that follows a Japanese sportsman abroad is a powerful force. Cash-strapped Chelsea would do well to harness it.

Of course, I’m not suggesting for a moment that Arsenal’s purchase of Junichi Inamoto a couple of seasons ago was motivated by anything other than their keenness for the player’s ability. Oh no. But as an aside, it’s worth pointing out that the official Arsenal calendar for that season had three players on the cover. First, Patrick Viera. A player any club in the world would want and a mainstay of the team. Second, Tony Adams. Arsenal legend, nuff said. Third… er… Inamoto. Need I say more?

Nakata is a slightly different matter, having shown genuine quality for Perugia before his move to Parma. He’s been less successful at his current club, it’s true. But, knowing Chairman Ken, I can’t help thinking that a shrewd investment of this kind might keep the shareholders at bay for a while. Hey, we might even be able to afford another hundred bedrooms for the hotel.

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