Friday, 28 March 2014

Barclays League Live: it's a lot more than watching a couple of games on Africa's biggest screen

So often you get invited to football functions that bore you to tears. Not the British Premier League's new fan zone concept: Barclays League Live. Zoo Lake near Johannesburg today was seriously impressive: it will be open from noon tomorrow and Sunday FREE for fans who want to see live British action on the big screen - but what surprised me was: there's MUCH, MUCH more than mere spectating to be done.

With Chelsea's Marcel Desailly and former England and
Liverpool striker Robbie Fowler at Zoo Lake today

For a start, some of our fooballing superheroes will be wandering about. French World Cup winner Marcel Desailly and former England and Liverpool star Robbie Fowler were both there today - tomorrow former Bolton, Charlton and Orlando Pirates African Champions League winner Mark Fish and ex-Leeds United hero Lucas Radebe will join the fans too.

It's a seriously impressive Absa-sponsored event (their banking partners Barclays sponsor the British Premier League) and there are plans to hold a similar event for South Africa's Absa PSL within the next year.

Chelsea's Petr Cech penalty challenge: Robbie Fowler shot
a 25-pointer first time. I tried six times and failed. Dismally

Though the Barclays League is beamed to 804 MILLION homes across 212 nations EVERY WEEK, not everyone is in entirely in love with British football in South Africa.

Former Kaizer Chiefs legend and SuperSport football analyst Shakes Kungwane tweeted me to say he didn't like the Premier League being shoved down his throat - and there are a growing number of La Liga and Bundesliga fans among the younger generation of football fans.

On top of that, the AmaKhosi are playing AS Vita in a vital African Champions League second round, second leg clash tomorrow night at Soccer City, trying to overcome a 3-0 away deficit while ailing Arsenal are airing live at Zoo Lake against Manchester City. And we've got Orlando Pirates and Moroka Swallows kicking off the Original Soweto Derby in Soweto at 6pm, an hour after Crystal Palace kick-off against Chelsea 5000 miles north.

But South African football - particularly the PSL - can learn a lot from what the Premier League have dared to do at Zoo Lake. PSL attendances are generally poor-to-pitiful, there is little on offer in the way of family entertainment or catering at our grounds. Only the big clubs - Kaizer Chiefs, Orlando Pirates and Mamelodi Sundowns - really draw crowds and the pull of SuperSport's live British football is a tempting alternative to watching live in the PSL stands.

And of course, we get to watch MORE live Barclays League football in South Africa than the British themselves, who are denied live coverage at 5pm on a Saturday afternoon, something the PSL should consider here.

Ultimately it's a battle for football-shaped hearts and minds. No expense spared. South Africa is one of the oldest and most lucrative markets for the British game, with replica Liverpool and Manchester United shirts present on every street in every corner of this diverse Rainbow Nation.

But the market is growing old. To maintain their traditional dominance over Spain and Germany's technically superior game, an exhibition at Zoo Lake is an obvious step for the Barclays League. Quite how much all this cost the Premier League and/or their banking sponsors, I've no idea. But it's got to be millions of rands, if not pounds. Dozens of Premier League officials, former players and commercial people have flown in to Oliver Tambo over the last 48 hours. Cardiff City, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur and Sunderland all have exhibits around the Zoo Lake Sports Club ground offering a range of football skills games - shooting, passing, penalty-taking, dribbling are all tested, assessed and ranked. The kids will love it.

In the centre of the ground, there's a five-a-side pitch and - obviously - there's plenty of scope for drinks and food spotted around the 100m square big screen - it's the largest television in Africa right now and has its own grandstand.

Glittering prize: the Premier League trophy at Zoo Lake
There are less strenuous pursuits too - one tent offers the glittering Premier League trophy with voice of football Martin Tyler talking us through the history of the competition since 1992 - and you can snap a picture with the trophy and your favourite team - to be emailed to you after a brief registration process.

The Premier League fan zone also offers a computerised tent where you can pick your own club's dream team if you want a break from the football action. Seriously, it's a family day out, even if the missus and the daughters aren't all kitted up.

For the football fanatcis the games being screened are: David Moyes' struggling Manchester United against Aston Villa at 2pm tomorrow. Then South Africa's own Kagiso Dikgacoi could be in action when relegation-threatened Crystal Palace attempt to stop the Chelsea juggernaut at 5pm. At 7pm, Arsenal - beaten 6-0 by Chelsea last week and held 2-2 by Swansea on Tuesday - have the toughest task of all attempting to stop Manchester City's millionaires from closing in on the top.

On Sunday, struggling Fulham face South African Steven Pienaar's in-form Everton at 3.30pm before title-chasing Liverpool face Tottenham Hotspur at 6pm.

 Look, nobody's saying the Barclays League is better than our own PSL, La Liga or the Bundesliga. But it is eminently watchable - almost a habit among some sectors of the football-speaking community.

If you're NOT going to a live PSL game tomorrow and/or Sunday (and that's most of you), it's worth a go. And you can take the whole family, boots and all.

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