Sandy Macaskill of the New York Times writes of the Manchester derby between Manchester United and Manchester City, and how this football match is bigger than any in recent memory.
MANCHESTER, England — Slanting rain and a vicious wind sent ripples and eddies across the puddles forming outside Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium on Sunday. Workers spilled out of two satellite television trucks, ferrying cables and cameras into the stadium to prepare for what could be the most anticipated match in Premier League history.
On Monday, those cameras will broadcast the game between Manchester United and Manchester City to 650 million homes in 203 territories. Sixteen overseas broadcasters have applied to cover the game, seven more than worked the recent Clásico in Spain between Barcelona and Real Madrid.
More people are expected to watch Monday’s match between City and United than the Champions League final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich in May, and yet this is not even a title decider. With United only 3 points ahead in the standings, and with two matches left for each after Monday’s showdown, the winner is not guaranteed the title.
Derby matches in British soccer are always frenetic affairs, but this is no normal squabble over the garden hedge. Henry Winter, a writer for The Telegraph, called it “the most seismic local tear-up in the history of English football.” He added, “This is neighbors at war, fighting for the right to be regional and national champions as the world watches.”
United and City first played, under different names, in 1881. But for the first time since the late 1960s, United’s rule over the city is in question.
United’s record of success has made it a team that is easy to dislike, but that has not always been the case. On Feb. 6, 1958, an airplane carrying the United team crashed on takeoff in Munich, killing eight players and three staff members. Public sympathy and support snowballed as United completed the 1957-58 season without its seriously injured manager, Matt Busby, and with a patched-together collection of crash survivors and new players. Incredibly, the team almost won the F.A. Cup, losing in the final.
United suffered a downturn in the ’70s and ’80s, but Busby’s torch was taken up by Manager Alex Ferguson in 1986. Under Ferguson’s leadership, United has won 12 league titles and 2 European Cups. This season United is competing for its 20th league title over all.
City enjoyed a period of success in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but it has long lived in United’s shadow. It has not won the highest league in the country since 1968, “but the pendulum is swinging,” according to Peter Spencer, sports editor of The Manchester Evening News.
While United is owned by the Glazer family, Americans who have saddled the club with debt, City has been taken over by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the brother of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi.
City has spent more than $1 billion on player transfers, and was rewarded last year by qualifying for the Champions League and winning the F.A. Cup, the club’s first major trophy in three decades. Times are good in east Manchester, but they may not last. Next season, UEFA, the game’s European governing body, is introducing Financial Fair Play rules, which stipulate that clubs can spend only what they earn. If properly enforced, the rules could slow City’s revival significantly.
For supporters on either side of the Manchester divide, these are issues to be dealt with when the time comes. Their horizon is set at Monday evening.
“Going in to work next Tuesday morning will be the most important day of their lives, for both sets of supporters,” Ferguson said.
The anticipation has been swelling ahead of a match filled with plot lines. Foremost among them is the tale of Carlos Tévez, the former United striker who transferred to City in 2009, squabbled with Manager Roberto Mancini this season and went AWOL to his native Argentina in November. Tévez returned in February, made peace with Mancini, and has scored four goals in his last three games.
And then there are the mind games. Ferguson has finally acknowledged that City is United’s biggest rival, rather than Liverpool, after calling City “a small club with a small mentality” in recent years. He called the match “the derby game of all derby games.”
If it was meant to get Mancini ruffled, it did not work. On Saturday morning, he was radiating relaxation. “We don’t have pressure; we don’t have anything to lose,” Mancini said.
How is it possible to stay so cool, calm and collected in the spotlight? a reporter asked. After all, by Monday, The Manchester Evening News will have written 100 pages on just this one game. Forget former glory; the paper has told both sets of players that they will be “legends or losers.”
“It is impossible to worry about a Monday game” on Saturday, Mancini said. “On Monday, it will be different.”
At Etihad Stadium, City fans emerged out of the deluge for tours of the stadium. Among them was Peter Reid, who made 103 appearances for City as a defensive midfielder, and who managed the team from 1990 to 1993. Now 55, Reid was escorting dignitaries from Abu Dhabi around the stadium.
A former England international, he played against Argentina in the 1986 World Cup quarterfinal in Mexico, the match in which Diego Maradona scored two of the most famous goals in soccer history: a shimmering run through five players for the so-called Goal of the Century, and the infamous Hand of God goal.
“I’ve played in the World Cup,” he said, “and honestly, this match is up there.”