KIERAN SHANNON: World awaits as ‘mega’ clubs meet again

There are big games, very big games and then there are mega games.

Ireland-England on Sunday may turn out to be effectively the Six Nations championship decider, but it was only mega in the eyes of those six nations.

A few hours later, America and millions of others speckled around the world would have tuned in to see the Miami Heat play the stuttering Los Angeles Lakers, bringing two of the world’s biggest talents, LeBron James and Kobe Bryant head-to-head, dwarfing the audience that would have followed events from the Aviva and placing Brian O’Driscoll’s star in the galaxy of global greatness into perspective.

But Kobe-LeBron was just a regular season game. In a few days’ time, almost everyone will have forgotten it as it gets lost in the haze of the needlessly-excessive 82-game regular season the NBA slavishly runs by.

Manchester United versus Real Madrid tomorrow night is not a regular-season game. It is not just a local squabble over a trophy involving a few countries. Jose Mourinho described it yesterday as “the match the world is waiting for”. He can be accused of only the slightest degree of hyperbole. It may not bring the streets of Rio or even Rialto to a halt but then nothing outside a World Cup does. Madrid-United is by anyone’s definition ‘mega’.

Certainly it is by Forbes. Last summer the esteemed magazine estimated that United are the most valuable sports team in the world, worth an estimated $2.23billion (€1.66bn), with Madrid in second at $1.88bn (€1.4bn), ahead of the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys in joint third and worth half a billion dollars more than eighth-placed Barcelona (Kobe’s Lakers trailed by another $500m, in 30th, behind more than a dozen NFL franchises).

United were also found to be the most supported club in world sport by the German research company Sport Markt, with only Barcelona splitting them and Madrid in third.

Another survey last year by sportsintelligence.com found that only Barcelona paid its first-team players more than Madrid ($7.9m and $7.3m respectively) with the Yankees and Lakers back in third and fourth, their starters having to on average settle for a measly $6.6m each.

It’s hardly surprising so that the biggest transfer in football history remains the bit of business these two clubs conducted in 2009, when Cristiano Ronaldo left Old Trafford for the Bernabeu.

His first clash with his old club is one of the fascinations about this fixture. Think of the majesty of the football he served up in his final two seasons at United in particular. He scored just one hat-trick for them. With Madrid he has netted 20, six alone since the turn of the new year, the latest just last Sunday night. After LeBron’s masterclass against the Lakers a few hours later, Miami’s coach Erik Spoelstra would remark, “I say this to Miami fans, ‘Don’t take it for granted.’ He makes greatness look easy.”

Mourinho — and Alex Ferguson — could claim the same to football fans about Ronaldo’s mastery of his sport. As his teammate Raul Albiol enthused that same evening, “Cristiano is spoiling us.”

Ronaldo’s team of course aren’t masters of Spain at the moment, making a feeble attempt of retaining their La Liga crown. But this is a different competition and United in particular should be conscious of that. United may be strolling to another Premier League title — some bookies are already paying out even though when some of their colleagues were burned in 1998 and last year — while Madrid struggle domestically, but it was a similar scenario when the sides met in 2000 at the quarter-final stages. United were en route to winning the Premier League by 18 points. Madrid would finish fifth in La Liga. Yet after a scoreless draw in the Bernabeu, Redondo & Co. would scorch United in the return leg.

Madrid would win that Champions League and they have the turnaround and talent capacity this season to win it again. The Premier League is much weaker than it was the last time Madrid met English opposition in the last 16.

Back then Liverpool blitzed them 5-0 over two legs. It is laughable to think that could happen if the two clubs clashed again, or any English side could do that to a Mourinho-coached side.

Soon Madrid won’t be a Mourinho-coached side. Instead some English side will. Could it be United? Doubtful, judging by how unimpressed Bobby Charlton was by Mourinho’s antics in clasicos these last few seasons. But Mourinho and football both work in mysterious ways. Of all the press coverage this game has commanded in recent days, the line that most intrigued was learning that Mourinho and his standout player Ronaldo met their old rival and mentor Ferguson for a coffee when Real were in Manchester to play City a few months back. Just what a wonderful picture: the three of them chin-wagging, joking, with one of them maybe occasionally solemnising. We can only guess what they talked about, laughed about. Tomorrow night there won’t be anything secret about their rendezvous. The whole world will be watching.

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