Real Madrid train at The Big House
ANN ARBOR, Mich. -- Hundreds of fans waited behind security barriers in the scorching mid-afternoon sun by Gate 1 of America's largest stadium, the 114,000-capacity Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, Michigan. That level was reached as recently as September 2013, although the limit has been set at a mere 109,000 for Saturday's friendly game between Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Tickets sold out in hours for what will be the largest-ever crowd to watch a football match in the United States. Those fans with time on their hands paid $35 to watch the teams train on Friday afternoon. Others waited for the teams to arrive in the hope of a free glimpse of their heroes.
Michigan is thinking about soccer this weekend. A leading Detroit newspaper placed Madrid's Cristiano Ronaldo at the top of its front page and carried a prominent feature on Madrid's training session from Thursday. Ronaldo, the current world player of the year, was the focus, as he was on Friday when he arrived with his teammates.
"I started supporting Madrid in 2002 because of Ronaldo," said Karthic, a fan who'd driven 11 hours from New Jersey. That's the Brazilian Ronaldo, long since retired. Around him fans held up banners for the Portuguese Ronaldo. They would be in for a disappointment.
As Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti spoke to the media, a suntanned Ronaldo sat on a long table alongside Sergio Ramos and Gareth Bale in the players' tunnel. A selected few supporters were entitled to walk past Madrid's stars and have merchandise signed. Ronaldo leaned over as fans posed to have photos with him, and then lined up in the shade of the tunnel before the training session began.
"That's Paddy Crerand," said former Manchester United player Ronaldo, pointing out the veteran United midfielder who now works in the media for MUTV. His teammates looked at the 75-year-old Glaswegian as Ronaldo explained who he was. For once, Crerand -- wearing a black Manchester United T-shirt and flip-flops over socks -- was lost for words. He looked humbled, emotional and a little bit embarrassed as current European champions weighed him up.
Crerand later interviewed Ronaldo and asked him if he'd ever return to Old Trafford.
"Well of course, well it was one of my favourite clubs, Manchester; everyone knows that every time when I speak about Real Madrid, I should speak about Manchester United -- I love there, I was 18 years old, I win everything there, the people treat me like a god there, so I appreciate [it], and the future nobody knows," replied Ronaldo.
Ancelotti didn't have good news for those hoping to see Ronaldo play.
"He has been working individually, separate from the team, but he will not play tomorrow and will train when back at Madrid because we will use him in the Super Cup," explained the Italian. Madrid will play the European Super Cup against compatriots Sevilla in Cardiff on Aug. 12.
"The plan for Cristiano was right," explained the former Milan and Chelsea boss. "We gave him one month of rest and started back on July 26, but he needs to recover completely and for this reason we don't want to take a risk tomorrow."
While other Madrid fans were disappointed that he won't be playing -- "not even for 10 minutes in a friendly match?" asked one -- Karthic was more pragmatic.
"It makes sense," he said. "He needs a rest after a big season. Of course I'd love to see him play live, but it's for the greater good. It's a long season. I'm still looking forward to the game between two of the biggest clubs in the world. The crowd for the World Cup final was 75,000; there will be 109,000 here tomorrow."
If that figure is reached, it will be the third-highest crowd in United's entire history and the highest ever outside Spain (the three biggest crowds to ever watch a Red Devils match all were in Spain, coincidentally).
Ancelotti opined: "It's never a friendly against Man United. It is a fantastic team in a fantastic stadium, but it is the last game of our tour and we want to finish well."
On United's new manager Louis van Gaal, the Italian said: "He is a very good and very experienced manager. He has fantastic experience and he will do a fantastic job at United. He is a manager who has nothing to learn."
Largest Soccer Crowds in United States
Result Attendance Stadium 2014 IC Cup Man United 3, Real 1 109,318 Mich. Stadium 1984 Olympics France 2, Brazil 0 101,799 Rose Bowl 1984 Olympics Yugoslavia 2, Italy 1 100,374 Rose Bowl 1984 Olympics France 4, Yugoslavia 2 97,451 Rose Bowl 1994 World Cup Brazil 0, Italy 0 94,194 Rose Bowl
On United's rebuilding after their seventh-place finish last term, Ancelotti said: "After Ferguson, it was more difficult for United, but they now have to rebuild a team. They have signed good players, but building a team is not easy and the Premier League is a very competitive league. It will not be easy to win in the first year because there are many competitive teams who want to win.
"It is not easy to implement a new system. It is important that the player is convinced, but it is difficult to say how long it will take."
Asked to describe United's new system and his use of three or five defenders, van Gaal said: "I can't see my philosophy working with four defenders. It will be five. Maybe there will be a time when I have to play with four. We will see. Now all the sessions are arranged for the five defenders system."
Wayne Rooney, who will play in front of the biggest crowd of his career, said of life under his new manager: "It's been great. The manager has come in and we are playing a new system and learning that and trying to get better. Over the next few weeks we will get better. It's been tough but the results will come, I hope."
Both managers will have a better idea of how ready their players are in front of the huge crowd on Saturday afternoon. That crowd will be boosted by one person the fans would rather not have on the sidelines: Cristiano Ronaldo.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.