Manchester United’s path to the Champions League final proved why they are one of the world’s biggest and most glamorous clubs, but their method of transport ahead of Saturday’s big game against Barcelona was a surprisingly low-key, low-budget option.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s stars shunned the club’s private jet and its luxury coach for the trip to London, where the match will be played at Wembley Stadium, instead taking the three-hour journey from Manchester on a public train.
The soccer millionaires mingled with general commuters at Stockport station before embarking, and once on board played cards and drank coffee like any other travelers.
By comparison, when United reached the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich in Barcelona, the club booked a Concorde jet for the occasion at a cost of more than $400,000. Return journeys on the Virgin train service from Stockport to London’s Euston station meanwhile, can be purchased for less than $100.
“It is sometimes nice to change things up a bit,” Ferguson said. “Before a big final it is nice to take the pressure off the players and do something a bit different. It keeps things loose and relaxed and enjoyable.”
English soccer teams used to regularly travel by train in the 1940s and 1950s, but it is virtually unheard of for professional sides these days. The presence of the United players, clad in their distinctive bright red tracksuits and carrying the formal wear they will don in the hours before the match, caused a flurry of excitement at both ends of the journey.
Barcelona’s preparations for the match were also impacted by extraordinary travel circumstances: The Spanish club was forced to journey to London two days earlier than planned.
The latest eruption of an Icelandic volcano threatened to scatter a cloud of volcanic ash across the skies of Europe, impacting travel itineraries. Coach Pep Guardiola ordered that the team fly to London on Tuesday and conduct their final preparations there.
Wembley Stadium is a significant venue for United and Barca, with both clubs feeling the destination for this year’s final provides them with a psychological advantage. Both teams won their first-ever European Cup at the famous old stadium, the original version of which was torn down 12 years ago to make way for the gleaming new edifice that stands today.
Barcelona’s build-up to the game of the season has also been low key, with some light sessions at the training base of English Premier League team Arsenal, which it knocked out of the Champions League at the quarterfinal stage.
“I am very relaxed about it,” said Barcelona star and World Footballer of the Year Lionel Messi. “I always take things easy because things have gone our way for a long time.”
Messi was instrumental in Barca’s victory over United in the 2009 final, a performance and result that cemented his status ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo as the best player in the world.