Chase the dollar or chase bespoke preparation for the new season? This is the question fans of Manchester United and Manchester City may ask following Monday’s derby in Beijing being called off less than six hours before kick-off, and the unsuitable conditions often found in far-off destinations.
Given the pitch at the National Stadium was a patchwork of loose turf and was infected with fungus, the puzzle is why the match was not cancelled earlier. The outcome was damaging for United, City and Relevant Sports, which is headed by Charlie Stillitano, the man behind the International Champions Cup.
Hu Mulin, a 17-year-old wearing a David Beckham shirt outside the Bird’s Nest, as the ground is also known, said: “I am a big Manchester United fan. I love Beckham, Rooney and Rashford. I am angry because I had a ticket and now they can’t play the match. We drove here by car and it took six or seven hours with my father and my friend.”
The farce may also cause awkward debate involving José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and the commercial departments of United and City about where the clubs go next summer.
The decision to cancel was taken at 2pm local time following a pitch inspection but Mourinho and Guardiola already had strong reservations. These were simple: three weeks before the Premier League season starts, they had to prepare players in stifling heat and play on a pitch that threatened to cause serious injury. On Sunday, Guardiola, despite having considerable input into City’s tour, highlighted the conditions, saying: “We know the humidity is not ideal.”
Weather that “would have caused problems anywhere in the world”, according to Ed Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman, was blamed for the match being called off. Yet City’s deputy head groundsman was at the stadium for 10 days, helping with the pitch. United’s groundsman was also consulted about the surface and given the venue is rarely used for football each club had concerns before the torrential rain.
It may be the first time United have not been able to play a game in China but they have had at least one close call. Three years ago in Hong Kong, United – and City – experienced similar difficulties when almost incessant rain prevented David Moyes’s side from training at Hong Kong Stadium before facing Kitchee in a friendly. Again there was concern about player safety. A few days before, City’s match with Tottenham Hotspur at the same venue had a delayed kick-off and was shortened to 40 minutes a half for the same reason.
Again, there were the stifling, humid conditions that affect south-east Asia and make it difficult for players to train: a factor also present on Friday when United lost 4-1 to Borussia Dortmund in Shanghai.
Mourinho had no say in the two-game eight-day trip because it was planned by his predecessor, Louis van Gaal. Next summer it is his decision alone where United go, the club say. Yet Woodward and the owners, the Glazers, will have considerable input and will stress commercial imperatives. At City, Guardiola will make the call in conjunction with the commercial department and other club stakeholders.
A glaring truth is that United and City are engaged in the race for global reach and the finance this yields. It means Khaldoon al-Mubarak and Ferran Soriano, City’s chairman and chief executive respectively, sign off a trip to China then find Guardiola feel moved to say “no injuries” as his first words of the pre-Beijing derby press conference. It means Woodward and the Glazers can sanction a trip to the same destination and watch a visibly upset Mourinho wish for the “good luck” of no injuries.
Van Gaal, on his first tour with United in 2014, complained bitterly at the five-state odyssey across America that took in California, Colorado, Washington DC, Michigan and Florida. His preference was for the cooler, dryer climes of Europe. United returned the following year to America, the “compromise” being there were two bases – in Seattle and San Jose – plus a flying visit to Chicago for the final game.
In a message to fans on Monday City’s captain, Vincent Kompany, said: “There’s things in life that you don’t control.” But where his club and United choose to tour is within their
control. In summer 2014, in the second year of Mourinho’s second spell at Chelsea, he took the club solely to Europe, playing games in England, Austria, Slovenia, the Netherlands, Germany, Turkey, and Hungary. Yet there is a suggestion United may return to America next summer and for some length , because Mourinho favours three-week tours for team-bonding reasons.
His decision to add an extra friendly to this summer’s schedule – the 2-0 victory at Wigan Athletic – appears wise following the loss of the Beijing game. When the season starts United will have had five warm-up matches but City only three. For Guardiola there is a chance his team could be undercooked when they play Sunderland at home on 13 August and the Champions League play-off first leg the following week.
Yet if fans want change it may be not be dramatic. Woodward says: “I am sure we will return to the Bird’s Nest” while City have sold a £265m stake in the City Football Group to a Chinese consortium.
It seems Europe is the location during the season, when the Champions League and Europa League are being played. In the close season the prime spot is the rest of the world.
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