Charging £60 to watch a pre-season friendly sounds like a way of guaranteeing an empty ground. Yet AFC Bournemouth not only expect a record crowd at the Goldsands Stadium tonight, but had supporters sleeping on the pavement to snap up the last few tickets. The visitors, you see, are not dull domestic opposition, but the nine-time European Champions Real Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and the rest are taking on Eddie Howe’s Cherries in a match arranged as a celebration of the Dorset side’s promotion from League One after the son of Eddie Mitchell, the chairman, got talking to a “mutual friend” of the Spanish giants. The complication was that Real demanded their usual match fee – around £1 million.
Assuming a full house of 12,000 at the rebuilt ground formerly known as Dean Court, the arithmetic suggests that Bournemouth will make a loss even with food and souvenir sales supplementing those eye-watering ticket prices, which makes the occasion look like a generous gesture by Mitchell and his Russian co-owner Maxim Demin. “We decided that it would be great for the fans and us to pull off something like this,” Mitchell said.
Initial reaction to the ticket prices on supporters’ websites and message boards was outrage, but a guarantee that Real will bring their first team, minus players who played in the Confederations Cup, ensured a high demand. Fans more used to seeing Oldham and Walsall than La Liga runners-up queued overnight 10 days ago when tickets went on general sale after season-ticket holders had claimed their places at a £5 discount. More supporters got out their sleeping bags last week when 2,500 extra tickets were released for the unfinished South Stand, with refunds promised if the local authority had not granted a safety certificate in time.
Mitchell, a sometimes controversial figure who once had to be prevented by stewards from confronting fans after a home defeat, and was fined by the Football Association after swearing during a BBC radio interview, was entitled to be confident about his pricing. Four years ago, Real sold out Shamrock Rovers’ newly opened stadium at €60 (£50) a head for another pre-season stroll, and Bournemouth is a far wealthier area than south Dublin, as Mitchell knows well. A property developer, he has built several of the more eye-catching and impressively priced domiciles on Sandbanks, the Poole Harbour peninsula estimated to have the world’s fourth-highest land values and which counts former Bournemouth manager Harry Redknapp among its residents. Some of Real’s stars may even take a peek in the local estate agents’ windows to see if they can snap up a bargain on the English Riviera.
Season-ticket holders Sue and Margaret, enjoying an al fresco lunch at the stadium’s Legends Cafe Bistro, had no hesitation in paying up. “It’s the only chance we’ll get to see Real Madrid,” Sue said. “My ticket only cost £40 as I’m a pensioner. But I’d still have paid the 60 if that’s what it had to be. If you want to see the best you have to expect to pay. It’s the same if you want to see Andy Murray at Wimbledon. It could cost you that to see a Premier League game.”
“It is a stretch,” delivery driver Paul Howe (no relation to Eddie), said. “But I’m taking my eight-year-old and one day he’ll be able to tell his kids that he saw Real Madrid play at Dean Court.”
Terry Hayles, who admitted to being only a casual supporter, was a rare voice of dissent. “I wouldn’t pay that sort of money for a friendly,” he said. “They won’t be going at each other. And the big names, Ronaldo and that, will they really play? I’ll be surprised if he’s giving it 100 per cent even if he does.”
Real will jet into Bournemouth airport today and fly out again immediately after the game, which means they will not be supporting the local hotel industry or sampling the delights of the south-coast resort during a heatwave, even though it might feel refreshing after the stifling heat of a Madrid summer.
The players are looking forward to the game as much as most fans. “We didn’t think it could be true,” the captain, Tommy Elphick, said. “Then the manager told us it had been confirmed. As you can imagine, the phones have been red hot ever since with requests for tickets.”
Defender Simon Francis is likely to be marking Ronaldo. “It’ll be a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” he said. “I actually played against Ronaldo in a Cup game when I was at Southend [in 2006] and we beat Manchester United 1-0. But since then he has become one of the most admired players in the game. We will be more excited than nervous. Who wouldn’t want to play against some of the best players and one of the best teams in the world?”
Howe hopes to pick the brains of new Madrid manager. Carlo Ancelotti, and his assistant, Zinedine Zidane, who will be in charge of Real for the first time, after the game. During it, he will encourage his young team to play. “We’ll prepare for a normal game, although it won’t be,” he said. “If this was a Cup game we’d put 10 men behind the ball as it would probably be the only way we’d have a chance, but I don’t think that would be in the spirit of this match. We want to try to entertain. If we get the ball for a couple of minutes, we’ll see what we can do with it.”
Tale of the tape
Bournemouth v Real Madrid
Division Three title (1986-87) Honours Nine European Cups, 32 La Liga titles, 8 Spanish Cups
Goldsands 10,783 Stadium capacity Santiago Bernabeu 84,454
£800,000 Matt Tubbs from Crawley Record signing £80 million Cristiano Ronaldo from Man Utd
Steve Fletcher 728 Record appearances Raul 741
Ray Eyre 202 (1924-1933) Record goalscorer Raul 323 (1994-2010)
183,500 Population 3,265,000