FOOTBALL: Pele, Giggs and Billy the goat

Guy Hodgson on the opening of Old Trafford's pounds 4m state of the art museum
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The Independent Online
IN THE Sixties and Seventies, Manchester United supporters would sing "Charlton is better than Pele". It was the sort of twaddle that should have shamed even the most red-eyed Stretford Ender, but who ever accused football crowds of being objective or rational.

Well, Sir Bobby was busy elsewhere yesterday and instead Old Trafford's new museum in the north stand was officially opened by Edson Arantes do Nascimento. Pele, to you and me, and somehow nobody felt short-changed.

The scorer of 1,282 goals in 1,365 professional appearances (97 in 111 for Brazil) and now the Minister of Sport for his country took one look at the pounds 4m building and, like much of the rest of the sporting population, gasped. Never mind the football, just feel the corporate might.

"I think Manchester United have become the most important club in the world," Pele said as he toured the three floors of a museum that pushes Old Trafford another few leagues ahead of the rest of the Premiership, "because of their administration and their stock market listing." Brazil, he said, would be apeing the commercial machine put in motion by United.

You could understand why. United's museum was only eight years old but had become overwhelmed by demand. Some 192,000 visitors a year had the seams of the structure groaning and the club confidently expect more people will be drawn to the new attraction.

Around 30 million people annually are expected to shop at the new Dumplington Shopping complex nearby and surely some will be siphoned off to pay the pounds 7.50 entrance fee that will include a tour round the ground as well as a chance to wallow in nostalgia.

Those statistics are impressive, but so is the museum. The Man-U-Net, an encyclopedia of the club that can be accessed from 18 terminals, includes details of 5,000 matches, 1,000 players and 5,000 goals. Every player has a biography and a record of appearances - Ryan Giggs alone has 36 video clips dedicated to him and 105 pictures - and, if the blurb is to believed, it would take more than a week to explore it fully.

Elsewhere, Peter Schmeichel has donated his entire medal collection to the exhibits while the most unusual display is the stuffed head of the one-time club mascot, Billy the goat. It was kept as a pet in his backyard by the former captain Charlie Roberts and met its sad demise after United's FA Cup final victory over Bristol City in 1909 when it succumbed to too much beer in the post-match celebration.

Sir Bobby Charlton has given a substantial collection of his own trophies, including his 1966 World Cup winner's medal, which is comfortably beaten by Pele's contribution, the temporary loan of the medals he won in the World Cup finals of 1958, 1962 and 1970.

Pele never played at Old Trafford although he had been here before, typically in this commercial age, to film an advertisement.

After endorsing Brazil's bid for the 2,006 World Cup and hoping that, if the tournament comes to Europe it ends up in England - you would never guess he was a politician now would you? - he was asked who was the United player he admired most.

"Michael Owen," Pele replied. Ouch! On the day United were meeting Liverpool too.