SYDNEY, July 17 (Reuters) - While frenzied discussions over the future of Wayne Rooney and possible transfer targets swirled around the Internet, it was business as usual for Manchester United on their lucrative trip to Australia on Wednesday.
After training, most of the squad opted for a round of golf, whale watching on the Pacific Ocean or a trip to Sydney’s Taronga Zoo as they continue the build-up to Saturday’s second match of their pre-season tour.
That the match, against an A-League All Star XI captained by Brett Emerton, is already an 84,000 sell-out is testament to the interest the English champions have attracted on their first visit to Australia since 1999.
In fact, with 17,000 of the 20,000 tickets available to watch United’s training session on Friday already snapped up, a bigger crowd was expected for that than most games in the powerhouse National Rugby League (NRL), a Football Federation Australia (FFA) spokesman pointed out.
There were slim pickings for die-hard United fans keen to make the most of the presence of their heroes in Sydney on Wednesday, however, but a couple of hundred got the chance to meet Rio Ferdinand at a book shop.
The price of the meeting was the A$40 ($36.93) purchase of a copy of the central defender’s new book “Rio, my decade as a Red” and the red-shirted fans were more than happy to pay it.
“It’s fantastic to see the fans getting the chance to meet the players and so on,” said Mark O‘Connor, chairman of the Manchester United Supporters Club New South Wales, clutching his copy.
“I‘m not getting much sleep at the moment ... it shows the rest of the world that Man U is as big Down Under as it is on the other side.”
‘ICING ON THE CAKE’
While the club’s motivation for the five-match pre-season tour is clear - get in touch with their fans in the Asia-Pacific and bank a few million dollars - the traffic is not all one way.
Soccer has long trailed rugby league in New South Wales, Australian Rules in Victoria as well as rugby union nationwide in the pecking order of football codes.
But the arrival of United and Liverpool, who play in Melbourne next week, have helped maintain the profile of the round-ball game at the end of a stellar season for the local A-League and recent success for the national team.
“In terms of media exposure for this kind of thing, the interest has been unprecedented,” the FFA spokesman added.
“And coming after the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup last month, this is just the icing on the cake.”
For the rest of Wednesday in Sydney at least, however, soccer and United will take second billing behind the third game in the State of Origin rugby league series between New South Wales and Queensland.
The United players will be at the match at the sold-out Olympic Stadium to see if New South Wales can win the interstate bragging rights for the first time since 2005.
That is almost as long as Rooney has been at United and a straw poll of the fans in the Sydney book shop on Wednesday indicated most were resigned to the fact that his spell at the club was coming to a close.
The 27-year-old striker was sent home from the tour with a hamstring injury and is, according to British media reports, “angered and confused” by new manager David Moyes’s hint he would not be first choice this season.
“I’d love him to settle down and see out his days at Old Trafford,” O‘Connor added. “But if he’s not happy, just let him go.” (Editing by Peter Rutherford)