Despite Uefa's best protestations, the mixed-zone concept has never been fully embraced by European stars. In theory, players should briefly mingle with journalists after each Champions' League fixture to offer their thoughts on the game. In reality, that seldom happens. Some are more inclined than others, but Manchester United have never hurried to put on their Calvin Kleins to face questions.
After United impressed in a 4-0 victory over Celtic in Seattle on Tuesday, the mixed zone was again put to the test. With US sports journalists accustomed to locker-room access and fully expecting the same level of co-operation from the visiting players, something had to change: it did.
Roy Keane was all smiles and graces as he fronted a bank of tiny microphones, while Ruud van Nistelrooy waxed lyrical about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's telling contribution on the right, and would have probably discussed the Maastricht Treaty had somebody asked the question. In the end, the Dutchman had to be ushered away to eat. Other players weren't so inclined, and loitered like naughty schoolboys, but they'll learn from their more accomplished peers if their employers have their way.
For all their networking and tie-ups with American sponsors, United hit the ground running in the States last week. Offering more substance than the Beckhams, they undertook an ingenious media charm offensive. Want a word with Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the central characters in the tragedy-to-triumph history of the club the local newspapers have been flagging up? No problem. A quote from Ferguson, chief executive Peter Kenyon or marketing director Peter Draper? Fine. United are winning friends, but the week's most personable performance came from Celtic's Martin O'Neill, who joked with the American media about their obsession with strange sports. Like baseball and basketball.
The United circus may have offloaded their star clown to Madrid, but the team always supersedes the individual, the quality of the football being the ultimate benchmark. Against Celtic, United were quality. Ten thousand Canadians were present in the 66,722 crowd, among them the Vancouver Whitecaps team. "You have a lot of respect for those players, watching them every Saturday on TV," said midfielder Alfredo Valente, "but when you actually get to see them live it's a different story. You see how they make things so easy, the way they play the game and the way it flows, with guys working off the ball. Just the little things you pick up from the game will benefit your own game." Another happy punter.
Ferguson noted that not all the fans in the stadium had the same high knowledge, but what was important, he reckoned, was the chance to see his team live. "You don't choose your team, it comes from your father or your grandfather," he said as a pointer to the high numbers of British and Irish expatriates among the crowd.
United are not going to crack America and rival the New York Yankees or the Dallas Cowboys off the back of four exhibition games (Ferguson picked up a journalist on his use of the word "crack") but they can continue to raise the profile of the club to the many consumers they court.
Today, United play in front of a largely Hispanic population when they meet Mexico's biggest side, Club America, in the Los Angeles Coliseum, but before the hype exceeds the reality, tickets are still on sale for the game. Indeed, while there were sabre-rattling reports in the Seattle media of tickets selling out instantly for the Celtic game, those same outlets carried advertisements offering last- minute ticket deals. The Manchester Evening News hasn't been known to carry such advertisements on the morning of United versus Liverpool.
Since United began broadening their commercial horizons with biennial long-haul tours to Asia, Australia or America in 1995, not one of their games has sold out. While there is no shame in not filling the Melbourne Cricket Ground or the 97,000-capacity super-stadium in Kuala Lumpur, the club are still developing ways of extracting money from many of the estimated 40 million fans overseas.
Association football has tried and failed to gain a mainstream foothold in the States before, but United's biggest stroke of luck could be their timing. Most people I have spoken to said two things: that soccer's profile is increasing beyond the core expatriates, and that more kids in the US now play soccer than baseball and American football put together - but many stop at 16, because there is currently no comprehensive structure beyond that. United hope that the momentum is going to take over, and they will be well positioned to cash in when it does.
Pointing out that Juventus, Barcelona, Milan and Celtic were also in the States, I asked Peter Kenyon if Europe's leading lights had thought about trying to breach the American market as a collective. "No," he affirmed confidently. "We're going it alone."
The rich could get richer - and how people will love or loathe them for it.
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- Ruud Van Nistelrooy
- Sir Alex Ferguson