Once a Gooner, Maybe, Always a Gooner
For the second time in 12 months Arsenal visited Malaysia for a high profile friendly. For all the hype and promotion though, the attendance second time around would have disappointed all parties.
Last year’s game, coming amid a backdrop of whether Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas would leave the club or not, was witnessed by 65,000 fans at the Bukit Jalil Stadium, Kuala Lumpur, and was just one of three games the stadium was hosting against English Premier League opponents – Chelsea and Liverpool were the others.
There is a feeling among many Arsenal fans that Malaysia was never intended to be on this year’s tour. When rumors first broke the Gunners would be heading east again, the destinations being highly touted were South Korea, China and Hong Kong.
If that surmise is true, with Arsenal hoping to cash in South Korean national team striker Park Chu Young, then it is easy to see why there was a rethink in North London following the lack of impact made by the forward in his first season at the club.
This year’s game in Kuala Lumpur, however, failed to match the attendance of last year. In fact, the crowd was estimated at 25,000 – less than half that of 12 months earlier.
Does this mean that Malaysia is falling out of love with Arsenal specifically or English football generally? Does it mean the interest was sated last year and many are blasé about seeing them again, or does it mean the cost was just too high for many?
The reason is likely to be somewhat more prosaic.
The Islamic fasting month of Ramadan began just a few days before the game. This requires all Muslims to fast during daylight hours. Given the tropical climate many adjust their day accordingly by, among other things, changing their work hours.
Breaking the fast when the sun sets is an important part of the day when people join friends, family or work colleague to take their first sip of water or bite to eat together.
It is then common to go to bed early and rise early to prepare and partake in the last meal before the fast starts anew the next day.
With a late kick off at 9.45 p.m. to allow the Malaysian players time to break the fast together, many fans no doubt decided the trip out to Bukit Jalil Stadium, and the unreliable public transport after the game, was just a trip too much during what is for them the holy month.
Malaysia, of course, is a mostly Muslim country. Last year a large number of fans travelled over from neighboring Indonesia as well as Singapore. Indonesia, as we are forever being told by the global media, has the largest Muslim population in the world.
The timing then may not have been ideal for a large number of fans in the region who ordinarily would have been willing to make the journey to Kuala Lumpur. But to be fair to Arsenal, their hands were also tied. Almost half their first team squad were on international duty at the European Championships in Poland and Ukraine; had Arsenal left earlier to play Malaysia before the fasting month began, much of their team would effectively have been playing without any pre season training. Hardly the best preparation.
The turn out may have been small but the team would have been left under no illusions about the passion fans in this part of the world feel for the club.