MManchester City have won five English Premier League titles since Manchester United’s last triumph in 2013, but they still lead in Asia. Compared to the famous red shirts, sights of a City top have been relatively rare on the streets of Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Shanghai over the years. This is starting to change and on the biggest continent in the world the gap has narrowed and now, thanks to Erling Haaland, it is closing faster than ever.
There are a lot of dubious figures put forward by European clubs about their follow-ups in the east. In 2015, Chelsea claimed a quarter of a billion Asian fans, three years after United hit 325 million in the Asia-Pacific region. United had, with Liverpool, a strong base of support in the heartland of South East Asia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand, due to the spread of English football in the 70s and 80s.
In the late 90s and throughout the 2000s, as the Premier League grew in popularity everywhere, United dominated on and off the pitch with players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney and Park Ji-sung. with their business expertise. This combination has attracted fans in new markets such as China, South Korea, Japan and India.
Now the story is one of United’s decline contrasting with City’s success and growing popularity in Asia. While Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Agüero and David Silva are, or have been, world class, for the first time City have a true global megastar in their Norwegian striker. Asian fans of European clubs are often perceived to be more interested in individual players than teams and flock to those who win and turn their backs on those who don’t. Haaland helps on both counts.
Thanamahamongkhol Kritikorn of Sporting News Thailand, who supports Liverpool, saw no such thing. “He’s too good to hate and even fans of other clubs respect him,” he said. “His popularity is now more than that of just an athlete and even girls who don’t watch football ask, ‘Who is this guy?'”
Local City fans agree. “There are a lot of people wearing City jerseys on the streets of Bangkok this year,” says Thailand-based Chutidet Prasarnsange. “You can’t buy the shirt as easily as before and whoever buys it all needs Haaland’s name on the back.”
That’s what 20 goals in 14 games do. “Thai City fans expected Haaland to be a great player who would lift the team, but we didn’t expect him to be able to have such an impact and become an icon so quickly. He is a phenomenon.
“All the media, all the platforms and even other team football fan pages are talking about him. My friends who don’t support City want to watch City games just because of Haaland. He’s all over the networks social and in a positive way.
There is a similar story not far to the west in India. “Haaland has attracted a lot of Indian fans and will continue to do so… he has been celebrated in Indian sports media,” said Jaidev Tripathy of Manchester City Delhi Supporters Club. Tripathy claims City’s newest star is ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of shirt popularity in India. “The demand for Haaland shirts is high.”
Puma Southeast Asia’s Ian Kwek said there had been a marked increase in Manchester City shirt sales since last year. “In terms of the Haaland name, there has been a very positive response in sales. Based on feedback from our specialist football outlets…Man City have seen growth in recent years and have been competitive to build their presence against other clubs in the league.
In China, United leads on Weibo, a Twitter-like site and well-used raw metric, with 11 million followers; Chelsea and Barcelona are close behind. City are fourth with 9.25 million, double Real Madrid and Liverpool. Haaland is big news there and his own standing has been boosted by his move from the Bundesliga to a league with a bigger global presence creating a vicious or virtuous cycle, depending on who you support.
“Haaland has generated a lot of topics on Chinese social media, and Man City and the Premier League platform have helped Haaland gain followers in China,” says Beijing-based consultant Bi Yuan.
In Asia, doubts about where the money that made City a global player came from are rarely heard. Indeed, the Abu Dhabi-funded City Football Group’s global stable of clubs are enthusiastically viewed as an advantage whenever a new takeover is rumoured. In India, Mumbai City have become a force and Yokohama F Marinos are close to the Japanese title. In 2019, third-tier Sichuan Jiuniu were taken over, a Chengdu-based side with huge potential now targeting the Chinese Super League.
These are long-term developments, but if Haaland can lead City to new heights on the pitch, so will they. “They have to keep winning,” Bi says. “This will increase the number of young fans they have attracted over the past few years and this in the near future will make them the most popular team in China as most Manchester United fans are getting older. The real driver of City’s popularity will be to win the Champions League.”
With Haaland leading the attack, the trophy looks closer than ever in Europe – and in Asia, as does Manchester United.
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