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The Biggest Brand In Football: Manchester United

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Like the majority of people who go to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur, you will fly into the impressive KL International, a good 70 kilometres outside the capital. The quickest route to the metropolis is a taxi ride. And, the chances are you will probably spend the majority of this journey hearing your driver talk about his first love… Manchester United.
Kieran De Souza, a 31-year-old industrial worker, is a typical Malaysian 'Red'.
"I was 12 when I first started supporting them," he recalls." It was the 1983 League Cup final, Liverpool vs Manchester United - Whiteside scored first but Liverpool got the winner from Whelan."
It can seem almost redundant to ask why Malaysian children should choose English football. The game is woven deep into the fabric of the society despite the fact that the country gained independence from British rule as long ago as 1957.
For a child like Kieran the English game would be all over the newspapers and magazines and, most importantly television.
"At that time all we talked about was English football," he explains. "On local TV all we watched was English football and backdated seasons of German football. Malaysian football was on of course, but we wanted English football. It's what we were exposed to. At that time we would listen to the BBC on a Saturday night for the live commentary.
"As a 12-year-old we'd watch anything about football but while the standard of local football was okay, it was not that high. We all knew the standard of English football was much higher and as a former British colony it was easy to get exposed to it. Of course our Dads or other relatives probably already supported an English team."
Since the 1980s the English game has faced far more competition for the hearts and minds of the South East Asian football fan. Satellite television has meant Italian and Spanish league matches are also available in countries like Malaysia and some fans are becoming more eclectic in their tastes.
But the advent of the Satellite TV era has also increased the amount of live English Premiership football available. While some fans might be tempted by Juventus, Inter Milan or the Spanish giants, far more have been added to the numbers fascinated by the English game and by Manchester United in particular. The 3 o'clock afternoon kick-off fits perfectly into a night out in Malaysia.
The club have been by far the quickest to capitalise on the opportunities. Special sections of sports shops have long been set aside to sell only United merchandise.
The team's tour of Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore in 2001 coincided with the opening of the Manchester United Red Café on Jalal Pinang in the tourist district of Kuala Lumpur.
Offering the chance to 'experience the "Theatre of Dreams" right in the heart of Kuala Lumpur', the Red Café capitalises on the Malaysian Manchester United fan's desire to bask in the reflected glory of the world's best known team. It also offers them the chance to depart with some of their hard-earned Ringgit on more than 2,000 different United products.
But just as many of Manchester United's fans in Britain have railed against the commercial exploitation of the 'brand', so have some of Malaysia's supporters. Kieran De Souza for instance turned his back on a rare chance to see his heroes in the flesh when they played in Malaysia last year.
"It was my protest against the commercialisation of the club. It was a personal thing. I saw the lay out of the stadium, and in the area where Beckham would go to take the corners were the most expensive seats. It was ridiculous."
It is impossible to tell to what extent the reaction of United's 'die-hard' Malaysian fans is influenced by their English counterparts or whether it is a separate phenomenon, but fans like Kieran do admit that the exposure the team gets is reaching saturation point.
"Now it's like a fad. They're more like a boy band rather than a team. I have that feeling that a lot of these fans don't know what is happening."


Tim Maitland, April 2002

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