Expect shirts, not stars at soccer friendly

STEVEN SANDOR, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:46 PM ET

There has yet to be an official announcement, but supporters of both Manchester United and Scottish giant Celtic are gearing up for a friendly between the two teams at Rogers Centre on either July 16 or 17.

And even though United likely will be forced to leave many of its stars at home — including Wayne Rooney, the Premiership’s best striker at the moment — the head of Canada’s official Man U. supporters’ group says it won’t matter.

The date of the rumoured Celtic-Man U. game is just a week after the World Cup. So, there is a good chance that players who went to South Africa wouldn’t be recalled to the club right away, especially, if the EPL title chase goes down to the wire as expected and United also ends up playing in the Champions League final. That would mean a lot of star players won’t have any kind of off-season until after the World Cup.

Rooney will star for England, as will centre-back Rio Ferdinand. Ji-Sung Park will play every minute of every game for his native South Korea. And Nemanja Vidic will be the rock of the Serbian defence. Serbia is a real darkhorse in this tournament, after fashioning one of the best campaigns in qualifying, so don’t expect the Serbs to go home early.

As well, Celtic striker Georgios Samaras is a key part of Greece’s World Cup plans.

There should not be an issue with the new turf at Rogers Centre. In previous North American tours Manchester United has not objected to playing on FieldTurf, as it played on fake grass at Giants Stadium and at Qwest Field in Seattle. The CFL’s Argos play host to Calgary July 14, so there would be no time to change the surface.

But, a game without the World Cup stars is still worth the ticket price, said Michael Singer, the chairman of the Manchester United Supporters Club of Canada.

“We know there are players going to be rested, but lots of good players will play. I am sure it will be packed. If we get 2,000 tickets (as a club), I am sure we’ll sell all of them.”

While so many United stars would likely miss a date a week after the World Cup wraps, veteran stars like Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes would likely be available, as will Bulgarian striker Dimitar Berbatov. United would also likely make some summer signings before a North American tour.

But the recent history of friendlies in Toronto has been mixed. Real Madrid’s win over Toronto FC last season was massive because the Merengues guaranteed they would give the superstars significant playing time, so Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka would be on hand to entertain the fans.

But that same season also saw the Reds host a lamentable game against Argentina’s River Plate, where the Buenos Aires club started a bunch of reserve players and teenagers, slapping their hosts and supporters in the face. The only thing memorable about that match were the fans of River rivals Boca Juniors who tried to place a team banner in the south stand of BMO Field.

Last year, the CNE promoted a match between Benfica and Celtic, even though their European seasons had already started and World Cup qualifiers were happening at the same time. Yes, Celtic fans flocked to the game and partied as if they were watching the team’s legendary 1967 European Cup winners, but the club brought just one regular over for the trip.

In its first season, TFC hosted a Benfica team that had just finished its season the week before. And, other than a victory lap for Portuguese legend Rui Costa, the game was played at a walking pace.

Too many teams are simply taking the money hoping their names are enough to sell these exhibitions.

Other than the Madrid game, Toronto has had success when clubs that are using the tours for their training camps — with jobs on the line — come to town. The 2008 MLS all-star game against West Ham was a great spectacle, as was a 2007 friendly against Aston Villa. Those clubs had players who had something to prove on the field.

United won’t have anything to prove so soon after a World Cup. Neither will Celtic. If the game happens, it will be a heck of a party — but don’t expect it to have the star power of Madrid’s 2009 visit.

steven.sandor@sunmedia.ca


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