Although United's intentions are still to be confirmed, their chairman, Martin Edwards, said yesterday that the club had been placed in a "no- win situation", with little option but to withdraw after being put under huge pressure from both the Football Association and the Government to travel to Brazil in January for the inaugural World Club Championship.
United have been told that England's bid to stage the 2006 World Cup will be in jeopardy if they fail to take part in the new tournament, which is the brainchild of Sepp Blatter, the president of the game's world governing body, Fifa. Only by forgoing the defence of the FA Cup can they squeeze the eight-team event into an already-overcrowded fixture list and the FA have willingly offered them an unprecedented exemption.
"Going to Brazil will mean rearranging two Premier League matches and if we go all the way in Europe the only spare dates will be for FA Cup games and replays," Edwards said.
But AXA, whose pounds 25m four-year support for the FA Cup is only 12 months old, is unhappy that the FA have been prepared to devalue the competition, even though the company accepts that the circumstances are unusual.
"We respect the decisions made by the FA and Manchester United," AXA's spokesman, Phil Hickley said. "The FA are the experts in football matters and it is only right and proper that such decisions be theirs.
"But as sponsors, AXA will be seeking meetings with the FA in the near future to discuss the implications both for this year's competition and for future years."
The company agreed to sponsor the Cup on the assumption that its status would not suffer in the same way as the Worthington Cup, which has effectively been downgraded by top clubs fielding below-strength teams and even threatening not to participate because of fixture congestion. They want to be assured that the exemption offered to United will not lead to the FA Cup suffering the same fate.
Last night, Edwards was locked in talks with the rest of the United board and the club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and a decision is not expected until today at the earliest. "Really it's a no-win situation," Edwards said. "It will help the 2006 World Cup bid if we go, and the Government and the FA are obviously very keen that we go. But if we pull out of the FA Cup that will disappoint our own supporters. We're going to get criticised, whatever we do." The World Club Championship, which will bring together the best sides from six continents, will be staged in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo between 5 and 14 January, just eight weeks before Fifa members decide which country will host the 2006 World Cup. Eight clubs will compete - Manchester United, plus the champions of South America, Africa, Asia, Oceania and central and north America. Also invited are Real Madrid, as the current holders of the World Club Cup, plus Corinthians of Brazil, last year's national champions of the host nation. If United did not take part, their place would probably be offered to Bayern Munich, their defeated opponents in the European Cup final. Either side would have to contend with an average daily temperature in excess of 30C. The dates for next season's FA Cup have already been moved forward to avoid clashes with the expanded Champions' League, in which clubs surviving to the second group stage will have to play on four consecutive Wednesdays during March. The third round of the FA Cup will be on 11 December and there will be a seven-week gap between the quarter-finals in February and the semi-finals in April. However, the fourth round, on 8 January, falls in the middle of the Brazil event. The FA ruled out the possibility of United being granted a fourth-round bye - Ferguson's preferred option - and although United could still play in the FA Cup simultaneously, putting out a second- string side as they do already in the Worthington Cup, Edwards claimed this would be "almost impossible". The Government, fully behind England's World Cup bid - ironically headed by the United director Sir Bobby Charlton - made its position clear through the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks. "It is my estimation that a failure by Manchester United to go to the new competition in Brazil - particularly if they were replaced by Bayern Munich - would do irreparable damage to our 2006 campaign," he told BBC Radio Five. And David Davies, the FA's interim executive director, said: "It would send the worst possible signal to world football at a time when we are in the midst of the 2006 bid to turn our backs on this tournament."
But critics yesterday said that even the World Cup did not justify the FA's willingness to risk the English game's most cherished tradition. Cup legend Ronnie Radford, whose goal for non-League Hereford against Newcastle in 1972 in many minds still epitomises the magic of the FA Cup, said: "It is part of our culture and if you degrade it like this, it is a kick in the teeth for everyone. If we are going to get the World Cup we should get it regardless of whether Manchester United play in a tournament in Brazil." David Sadler, secretary of United's former players' association, echoed that sentiment, blaming a chain of pressure emanating from Fifa through the FA to United. "You don't like to use the word `blackmail' but it seems there is something of that behind this. England's World Cup bid should stand or fall on what we have to offer in terms of staging the event."
And Andy Walsh, the chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, claimed the club had been put in an unfair position. "This is not Manchester United saying they do not want to play in the FA Cup. This is the FA willing to sacrifice the oldest domestic cup competition in the world at the high altar of TV revenues."
Leading Article, Review, page 3
FIFA WORLD CLUB CHAMPIONSHIP
5-14 January 2000
Manchester United (England) (1999 European Cup winners)
Real Madrid (Spain) (1998 Toyota Cup winners)
Vasco da Gama (Brazil) (1998 Libertadores Cup winners)
Corinthians (Brazil) (1998 Brazilian champions)
Al-Nasr (Saudi Arabia) (1998 Asian Super Cup winners)
Plus three other clubs: 1999 African Champions' Cup winners; Concacaf club to be decided; Oceania club to be decided. (Fifa Confederations have until 3 October to nominate competing clubs).
The inaugural Fifa World Club Championship will consist of two groups of four teams, with clubs playing each other once. Group winners will contest the final, group runners-up will play off for third place.