The Michigan Athletic Department said they would come, and they did, in full force. They sported Cristiano Ronaldo jerseys and scarves, and they kicked soccer balls in the parking lot. The fraternities looked dormant, but the party went on anyway, with tailgates filling the lawns on State Street and the stadium parking lots alive as ever.
Even before Ronaldo unexpectedly entered Saturday’s game between Real Madrid and Manchester United, Michigan Stadium’s soccer experiment was a roaring success.
Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti had previously maintained that the megastar would not play in the record-breaking meeting at the Big House, taking away some of the excitement of the game. But in the 74th minute, Ronaldo came onto the pitch and solidified a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all who came to see it.
Ann Arbor had the look and feel of a football Saturday, only instead of a sea of yellow taking over the town; it was swarms of red and white.
Perhaps the biggest difference in atmosphere from a Michigan football game to Saturday’s match was the diversity of the people inside the stadium. Everyone wanted to be a part of history — and they were, as the game drew the largest crowd in U.S. soccer history at 109,318 — but they each descended on Ann Arbor by different means and with their own story to tell.
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As far as summer internships go, Matty Berman effectively hit the jackpot.
A rising senior communications major at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, Berman was chosen as an intern with Relevent Sports, the company organizing the International Champions Cup.
As a college soccer player and lifelong sports fan, Berman knows he wants to work in sports and figured a summer stint with Relevent would be a great opportunity to break into the industry. What surprised him, though, was that nearly one quarter of his summer would be spent traveling the country with Real Madrid, stopping in Los Angeles, Dallas and Berkeley, California, and culminating Saturday with his first-ever trip to Michigan.
“This is something I probably wouldn’t have imagined would have been available as a summer internship,” Berman said. “It’s been an extremely pleasant surprise.”
Managing the press circus on the field, in the tunnel and on any excursions, Berman has gotten to keep close quarters with the Champions League winners, but he’s also had to adopt a security-guard mentality.
Berman carries himself like a seasoned press handler, answering questions honestly while being careful not to give away any sensitive details of the club. But even through his professionalism, he doesn’t hide how happy he is to have gotten to know some of his heroes on a personal level and to be a part of this cross-country adventure. He’s gotten to learn more about the game along the way, watching stars like Ronaldo and Gareth Bale at practice every day, and has gained some new favorite players as well.
“Once I got to know some of them closely, definitely I’ll be rooting for these guys as they progress through their leagues and tournaments they have,” Berman said. “It definitely puts a soft spot in your heart.”
That soft spot is exactly what the International Champions Cup has been able to bring to so many Americans this summer. The spirit of the game and the size of the spectacle have transcended real-world obligations and brought out the excited fan in Berman and so many like him.
Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal stressed in his post-game press conference how nice it has been to meet the team’s American fans. But that’s only fractionally as powerful it has been for those same fans to see his team take the field.
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The match Saturday may have just been a tournament friendly between two shorthanded teams, one of which could not advance to the final and one of which almost certainly would.
But to four red-clad fans outside Michigan Stadium, it was the chance of a lifetime.
Nick Deziel, Terry Wong and brothers Chris and Darryl Ford, four Manchester United fans from Windsor, Ontario, stood around a grill in the parking lot before the match. They had waited as long as two decades for the chance to see the Reds in person, always wanting to go to Manchester to see them live but never finding the time or being willing to spend the money.
Then the International Champions Cup arrived in Ann Arbor, and the four friends had their chance.
They’d been to Ann Arbor before, sometimes for Michigan football games and also for the Winter Classic, but this trumped them all. Deziel bought tickets from a Michigan season ticket holder whom he knew at work, and the deal was done.
“This is it, man,” Darryl Ford said. “Real Madrid and Manchester United, that’s the two biggest teams in the world. Everybody can talk Barcelona and all (those) other teams, but it’s Manchester United and Real Madrid. It’s the biggest.”
The four agree that for a cold-weather country where hockey is king and the national team hasn’t made the World Cup since 1986, soccer is surprisingly popular.
“From the grassroots point of view, it’s cheaper to put your kids into soccer than hockey, so it’s growing,” Wong said.
It’s also a sport for the diverse city of Windsor, where each street supports a different team.
Deziel, Wong and the Fords don’t pretend that soccer comes before hockey — it is Canada, after all. But soccer is right there for all of them, so when the opportunity to watch Manchester United play in person came, it was a no-brainer. They drove down Saturday morning for the 4 p.m. game — an incredible experience they never thought would happen.
“Maybe for an exhibition or a friendly match,” Chris Ford said. “But this international tournament that they’ve got going on, I never thought it could actually be something.”
But it was something, and it meant something different for everyone around town.
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This was a very different kind of football Saturday, but the atmosphere during the morning made it seem like one. Music filled the air, tailgates lined the streets and fans brought their jerseys out in droves for the big match.
Two vendors at EJ’s Gourmet Street Cuisine decided to capitalize on the opportunity. They set up the same street-side food stand that they do for football games, selling hot dogs, kielbasa and Polish sausage.
In the early afternoon Saturday, the response was positive already.
“Last night when we were out in the town, it was a higher-quality crowd, so we definitely sold more premium meat, instead of hot dogs,” one vendor said.
The two said they would keep their stand up until shortly after the game ended, when the crowd started to die out.
Both enjoyed the opportunity for extra business and said they would be open to doing it again for any event that Michigan holds.
“It depends on how many people we got ready, and how prepared we can be, and how quick we can be. We heard about this with a fair amount of time.”
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The global nature of Manchester United and Real Madrid’s fan bases drew fans from all over to the game in Ann Arbor. Games in North America give people an opportunity to see their favorite team without making the trip to Europe.
Real Madrid drew a couple fans originally from India who had taken a rooting interest in Madrid while living in India. Ajit Renjit, a Ph.D student in electrical engineering at Ohio State, and Siddharth Soundararajan, a master’s degree holder from Rutgers, made the trek from Columbus and New Brunswick, New Jersey, respectively, to see their favorite team.
Renjit saw Madrid live for the first time, an experience he could only dream about before the International Champions Cup.
“I still can’t explain it because I’m watching a legend, which I have never dreamt of in my life,” Renjit said Friday at the teams’ open training session. “It’s really exciting. I can feel my heart pumping.”
Soundararajan, who said he has followed Real Madrid for 10-12 years, has seen them two or three times before, but none was like this one.
“Each time is pretty special in its own way, because I saw Real Madrid play live for the first time a couple of years back and then again the next summer,” Soundararajan said. “But this is the biggest game — Manchester United against Real Madrid, both my favorite teams — so this is the biggest day.”
It was a big day for a lot of people, one that the University looked forward to putting on.
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When Michigan Stadium was first rumored as a possible venue for the 2014 Guinness International Champions Cup, it wasn’t hard to connect the dots.
Big clubs at the Big House meant big money. But beyond the potential payout, the sheer matchup between Real Madrid and Manchester United — the two most popular soccer clubs in the world — meant big opportunity.
The tournament and Brandon put the best possible product in the continent’s largest stadium and took in fans from all over: India, Canada and, yes, even Columbus. It created the game of a lifetime for most of them, and who knows? Maybe it even started a new chapter of fandom for others.
Either way, this wasn’t any ordinary football Saturday. Not everyone was dressed in maize, or from the area, or even from America. But on this day, among a wild crowd of 109,318, anyone could belong.