HANGZHOU, China - Manchester United believe they have 71 million fans in China and the most dedicated, and wealthiest, flocked from all over the vast nation to Hangzhou on Sunday for a rare chance to see their heroes in the flesh. From the moment they touched down for the last match of their pre-season Asian Tour, every appearance by the English champions has been attended by mobs of screaming supporters. A half empty stadium for the 8-2 drubbing of Hangzhou Greentown was the result of a restriction on the number of tickets that were allowed to go on sale, and perhaps ticket prices that are still just too expensive for many Chinese. The support of the Chinese fans was applauded by United manager Alex Ferguson but their enthusiasm also cost him the chance of seeing the sights in one of the country's most popular tourist destinations. "To be honest I didn't get a chance to see the city," said the Scot. "With a thousand fans outside the door it makes it a bit difficult." Two students in United shirts outside the Yellow Dragon stadium said even though they were local, they could not afford to go in to the match. "The tickets are far too expensive," one said. "There is no discount for students. So we came to sell souvenirs and now we have made a few hundred. It's nice." Mechanical engineer Ba, who said he had been supporting United for a decade, spent 1,000 yuan ($146.4) to fly in from the western border province of Yunnan and shelled out another 600 yuan ($87.82) on his match ticket. "It worth the price," the 25-year-old said. "I thought watching a Manchester United match was a dream that would never come true in my whole life, but here they come." Ba is not alone among Chinese fans in developing his affections for a English club through a particular player, and judging by the number of replica shirts still bearing the name of Cristiano Ronaldo, United might be losing a few to Real Madrid. They have gained at least one, though, with the recent signing of England striker Michael Owen, who grabbed two goals on Sunday. "I am not a Man Utd fan. I just came for Michael Owen. Since his first appearance at the 1998 World Cup I have been supporting him wherever he plays," said a Shanghai college student surnamed Pan. "This is my first chance to see him in person." Huo Jianguang, a designer from Guangzhou, was lucky enough to see his favourite player score a hat-trick. "When I was in high school I noticed a Man U player who had just been promoted to the first team. That was Ryan Giggs," he said. "I am about the same age as him. I watched how he grew up to be the greatest player. It feels like I shared my youth with him and there is some mysterious connection between us."
26 July 2009
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