There's an awful lot of Stokies in Sao Paulo...

Three times the size of Paris and still growing, Sao Paulo overwhelms with its sheer scale - the picture at the front of this month’s FourFourTwo only shows a fraction of the urban sprawl.

‘Sampa’ has few of the physical attributes of its smaller sibling Rio to the north, but it generates 40% of the GDP of the fifth largest country in the world. As a result, the best bars and restaurants are in Sao Paulo and locals consider Rio a backwater.

I arrived on Wednesday and, after seeing someone wearing a Chelsea shirt with ‘Drogba’ on the back, took a bus to the centre. Closely packed vertiginous skyscrapers justify Sao Paulo’s tag as the New York of Latin America.

Sao Paulo: Officially bigger than Bradford

There are huge disparities of wealth, from sprawling gated mansions to people living in cardboard boxes under vast flyovers. Then I saw a man selling Corinthians flags by traffic lights.

Surely Brazilians aren’t that into football that they pop out to the shops for a paper and come back with two metre flag on a stick? Then again, I know a man in Manchester – let’s call him Michael Webster – who once popped out to get a paper in his slippers while his wife made breakfast.

He was a local character, famed for downing pints of Pernod and Rod Stewart impressions. A coach was waiting near the paper shop to take a stag group to Blackpool. Up for some fun, Webster allowed himself to be persuaded to get on it. He returned home two days later, presumably to cold eggs but burning ears.

In 1975, non league Altrincham drew away at Everton in the third round of the FA Cup. Webster was – and still is – close mates with then Altrincham player and now current manager Graham Heathcote.

Altrincham were cast as cup heroes and a press call was held at their Moss Lane home the following morning ahead of the replay. Heathcote invited Webster who, naturally, pretended to be an Altrincham player. How were the media to know differently?

Such was the demand for tickets for the replay that the game was switched to Old Trafford. The decision was justified – 35,530 showed up.

“Driving up the Chester Road to Old Trafford was like Wembley Way for us,” recalls Heathcote. “Thousands of United and City fans cheered us on. City played the next night and had a smaller crowd.”

Out on the Old Trafford pitch, Heathcote made an early error, a back pass to Bob Latchford who scored. Mick Lyons added a second in the second half.

“I learnt then that you only ever get one chance against the top teams,” Heathcote rues. “ I was distraught as I walked back to the changing rooms – until I was distracted by a loud splashing noise.” It was Michael Webster in the players’ bath. He had cut the picture of himself out of the paper and blagged his way into the changing rooms.

Another time, Webster ran on the pitch at the other Old Trafford and sprinted to the crease where he kissed Clive Lloyd’s boots.

But back to Sao Paulo. It’s not a tourist city. Of the city’s 18 million inhabitants, there are more than two million of Spanish and Italian descent and the largest Japanese population outside Japan. There’s apparently a thriving colony of people from Stoke, but I’ve yet to stumble across them.

They’ll be doubtless singing songs about hating Manchester United in some favella.

At my hotel, I switched on the television and saw the youth teams of Corinthians playing another Brazilian giant in the Sao Paulo youth tournament. So that’s what the flag man was up to. United will probably have had a scout there.

"Ole Ole Ole Ole... Ole... Ole"

I’d not seen my girlfriend for a month as she left for Christmas in Brazil when I went to Tokyo. As I waited for her to arrive from her home city of Porto Alegre, I typed the following into Google: “Irish Bar Sao Paulo.”

I felt bad as I did it. The editor had told me to forget about football and spend some time with her. Despite being Brazilian, she wasn’t into football when we met. Now she sends texts saying: “F*ck off Middlesbrough” and her mum updates me on any local news of Manchester United’s Brazilians. Which will soon be half the team.

A place called ‘O’Malley’s’ came up on the screen. I clicked on their website. “Manchester United vs Wigan Athletic 5pm,” it said. “All beers half price. Free food.” In such a massively sprawling city, I was delighted to discover it was only 200 metres from our hotel.

“What do you want to do over the next few days?” asked my girlfriend a few hours after arriving. I had to be honest.

“Watch United tonight and visit two stadiums tomorrow,” I said. “Then it’s up to you.”

She was fine about it. Maybe she had a premonition about who we would meet at one of the stadiums…

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