Saturday was a memorable day for Ann Arbor, and all of U.S. soccer. What started as a 90 minute soccer game quickly turned into a weekend event with the main event being Manchester United playing Real Madrid in the Guinness International Champions Cup at their football stadium, the Big House.
Ann Arbor closed many of the main streets downtown and brought in live music the night before the game. Ann Arborites (the proper name for the people of Ann Arbor) took to the idea.
After the open training session that Real Madrid and Manchester United held on Friday evening, soccer fans made the walk into downtown Ann Arbor. The atmosphere was buzzing. Downtown restaurants rented out Main Street to fit more excited fans. To an outsider, it could have looked like a European town on the night before a big game. The streets were filled with players and coaches, kids and parents, and fans of all kinds. No one could really believe that Ronaldo, Rooney, and Bale would be performing the next day.
Two and a half hours before kickoff, there were miles of traffic delays on the I-94 East highway as soccer fans from around the country headed to the college town.
Arriving at the stadium, the first thing that was most noticeable was the sheer number of soccer shirts worn by the majority of fans. Manchester United shirts outnumbered Real Madrid jerseys by at least 5 to 1. But other than the sea of red and white jerseys, it was eyeopening to observe the other club and national shirts worn by spectators. There was everything you could imagine including shirts featuring Croatia, São Paulo, Newcastle, Cambodia, Detroit Express, Grand Rapids, Fulham, USA, Manchester City and many more.
But out of a sea of shirts among the 109,318 crowd, I only spotted 2 MLS shirts – a Columbus Crew jersey and a retro Metrostars shirt. World soccer is alive and well in Michigan, but MLS is practically invisible.
The second most noticeable aspect was Michigan’s decision to allow alcohol to be served in the stadium, in what is always a “dry” stadium where alcohol is not permitted. With Guinness being the main sponsor of the International Champions Cup, the event organizers were able to pass an ordnance to allow beer to be sold. As such, my colleagues and I had a couple of cold Guinness beers before the game kicked off, in the Guinness beer garden, which was a perfect way to get ready for the game.
Before, during and after the game, the fans behaved impeccably as they moved in and out of the stadium. For an attendance of over 109,000, that’s quite an achievement.
If and when the United States hosts another World Cup, the University of Michigan stadium has to be considered as a venue given its size and amenities.
Inside the stadium, the Man United and Real Madrid fans blended together except for the designated ends behind the goal. At one end, several hundred MUFC fans congregated behind the goal. Behind the other goal were a smaller gathering of Real Madrid supporters. But there was no doubt that the majority of the crowd was supporting United.
In the past, The Big House has only been used three times for non-NCAA or football activities. With this being the only soccer game ever played inside The Big House, Michigan laid grass over the artificial turf.
Other than the loud cheers for United, the biggest cheer of the day came when Cristiano Ronaldo entered the field for the last 10 minutes of the game. He wasn’t expected to play, so it was a pleasant surprise to see the brief cameo.
After the game, we — along with thousands of other fans — descended on downtown Ann Arbor to continue the soccer carnival.
For one weekend and one weekend only, Manchester United fans turned Ann Arbor from blue to red.
Additional reporting by Liam Marley.