Landover (United States) (AFP) – Having paid nearly $500 for a ticket to watch his team in a pre-season friendly against Barcelona, Manchester United fan Vikrom Ahuja could hardly contain his excitement.
“It’s a lifetime opportunity because you’re not going to see this kind of opposition in the US,” said Ahuja as he savored the prospect of seeing Jose Mourinho’s side take on the likes of Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez at a stadium in the suburbs of Washington.
“I don’t support a local team because the way they play, it doesn’t excite me, it doesn’t get me out of my seat.”
Domestic soccer has long struggled to draw big crowds in the United States, even though ticket prices often are significantly cheaper than for sports such as baseball or American football.
But huge attendance figures at a series of friendly matches involving the biggest teams in European football have underlined a decided American interest in the game — as long as the quality is top-notch.
Tickets for Saturday night’s match between Real Madrid and Barcelona at the 65,000-seat Hard Rock stadium have been selling for nearly $1,000 on the black market.
A match between Real and Manchester City drew a crowd of more than 90,000 in Los Angeles earlier in the week, while upwards of 82,000 fans watched Barcelona take on Italian giants Juventus just outside New York last weekend.
For years, Europe’s top clubs tended to head to Asia in the close season in a bid to grow their fan base, but the United States appears to be increasingly the number one choice.
Other teams to have toured the States this year include Paris Saint-Germain, Roma and Tottenham — some them competing in the grandly titled International Champions Cup.
– Star signings –
The matches give US-based fans a chance to watch their team’s newest stars even before they make their debuts back home, such as United’s new record signing of Romelu Lukaku.
Barcelona fans meanwhile got to see Brazilian star Neymar score the winner in what could turn out to be one of his last matches for the Catalan team if a much-touted move to PSG comes to fruition.
Eric Wesner, part of the 82,000-strong crowd at a stadium which is normally home to the NFL’s Washington Redskins, said he had no regrets about paying $200 for a seat even if the venue is a good two-hour drive north of the capital.