Ann Arbor — Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney are in town.
And they have brought some of their friends, like Gareth Bale and Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez.
That is right. As in, “Chi-i-i-i-cha-a-a-a-r-r-ri-i-i-i-i-to-o-o-o-o!”
Real Madrid and Manchester United, two of the most storied teams in soccer, begin practicing locally today for a preseason tournament match Saturday, providing a rare live display in Michigan of some of the best in European football — with an emphasis on “some.”
Organizers and sponsors of the two-year-old International Champions Cup chose the grand venue of Michigan Stadium with the intention of drawing the largest live audience ever to attend a soccer match in the United States. Barring severe weather, they are likely to succeed.
Despite the exhibition nature of the game, it is sold out.
With both teams generally among the class of the Spanish La Liga and British Premier League and frequently available to fans in the United States on cable broadcasts, and having sent sizable contingents to the 2014 World Cup which set viewership records, interest among fans in Michigan and across the Midwest is high.
It is a game roughly comparable to two enormously popular, long-established, competitive NFL teams playing an exhibition in a legendary venue in Europe.
Not all the stars will play. Those who do understandably may play less than in a regular-season game.
While Rooney has provided scintillating moments in the tournament, Ronaldo has yet to return from a knee injury. The Guardian and others, however, reported Wednesday that Ronaldo is rehabilitating well, and may pick Saturday’s match to return against his former team.
Time will tell.
'Fun,' if not all-out
The players are unlikely to extend themselves to the degree they might when considerably more is at stake in league or other tournament play. But fans of the teams and sport are eager to witness the action, regardless.
Many are keen to discern new formations likely to be deployed because there is so little risk, evaluate younger players, and watch a new coach — Louis van Gaal — along the pitch for Man U. The motivation of both sides to use the preseason for the sort of experimentation that sometimes can lead to exciting, unfettered play but some lackluster moments also should be on display.
In sum, whether in person or on the Fox broadcast, expect none of the sort of blood-and-guts viciousness that affected the World Cup match between Colombia and Brazil, for example, but a potentially upbeat display of players working on technique and employing some new strategies.
“From a fan perspective, the ability to see two of the top three most valuable sports teams per Forbes magazine is incredibly exciting, and the matchup — a rare one that can generally only happen in Champions League play — will be fun,” said Laura Hahn, a business consultant formerly of Metro Detroit who will travel from Chicago for the match.
“Despite there not being a lot at stake, I suspect both teams still want to win and will try to do so in a game that won’t be significant from a scheduling or tournament perspective, but significant from a branding and audience perspective,” she said.
Indeed, the tournament is covered by European media as a series of friendlies, but also a prime chance for the individual teams, the leagues and the sport to grow the game in the United States. The Daily Mail in the United Kingdom reports the game will attract “an astonishing 109,000 fans.”
Hahn usually travels back to Metro Detroit this weekend for an annual family golf fundraiser for a memorial scholarship. This year, she will contribute and attend the related events.
But, instead of teeing off, she will be in Michigan Stadium.
Having spent time in Germany, when her father worked at General Motors for Opel, she finds her loyalties where they lie.
“My favorite team is Bayern Munich and my English Premier League team is Chelsea, so I don’t have deep loyalty to either team,” she said. “Although, I’ll be cheering for Real Madrid as they have more Germans on their team — Sami Khedira and Toni Kroos, though I suspect neither will make the trip due to their extended World Cup play and current vacation.”
Well worth watching
Indeed, Khedira and Kroos, along with some other stars on both sides, have not traveled to the United States, in part, because of late play in the World Cup.
Among those absent is the brilliant young striker James Rodriguez of Real Madrid, who excelled in Brazil, and the terrific Dutch forward Robin van Persie of Manchester United, whose spellbinding header against Spain June 13 provided millions with a postcard from the World Cup.
Having attended the World Cup, business consultant Sridhar Krishnan says he is searching for tickets for Saturday.
“While Real Madrid initially did not bring their strongest squad for the U.S. tour, the late additions of their ‘Galacticos’ certainly makes the game this weekend in Ann Arbor more appealing,” said Krishnan, who lives in Detroit and was referring to some of the expensive, big-splash signings Real has made in recent years.
“Galactico” is Spanish for galactic, as in the galaxy or Milky Way.
“As you can expect, seeing the likes of Ronaldo, Rooney, Bale, et cetera — if they play — live at the Big House will be awesome.
“Since it is still preseason, I expect this match to be nothing more than an ‘exhibition.’ Both the teams would not want to risk serious injuries to their players before the start of their regular season, so I expect players to take it easy and not really give their 110 percent during the game.
“That being said, I think both teams would try to experiment with new formations and tactics, and this would serve as an opportunity for young, new, bench players to prove their worth in the starting lineup.
“For Manchester United, all players will definitely want to impress their new manager in a match against the reigning UEFA Champions League winners. I expect it to be a ‘fun’ game to watch, but I am definitely not expecting a super competitive outcome.”
Manchester United vs. Real Madrid
What: Pool A round-robin match of the International Champions Cup, an eight-team competition being contested at North American sites prior to the beginning of the European league seasons.
Kickoff: 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 2, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Tickets: Game is sold out