Club World Cup: How a trip to Brazil won Man Utd the title

By Chris Bevan and Shamoon HafezBBC Sport
Beckham red card at Club World Cup

If Chelsea get half as much joy out of this week's jaunt to Japan as Manchester United did when they went to Rio de Janeiro 13 years ago, then Rafael Benitez and Roman Abramovich could be happy men come May.

At the time, United's trip to South America in January 2000 for the inaugural World Club Championship (now known as the Club World Cup)external-link was seen as a total disaster, on and off the pitch.

That view changed dramatically five months later as United streaked clear to win the Premier League by the biggest margin in top-flight history but, before a ball was kicked in Brazil, Sir Alex Ferguson's side were already at the centre of a huge storm.

Under pressure from the Football Association and the government to boost England's doomed bid to host the 2006 World Cup, they pulled out of their defence of the FA Cup in order to compete in what was Fifa's new showpiece club event.

Not that everyone noticed. Former United defender Mikael Silvestre told BBC Sport: "I understand the meaning of the FA Cup now but I had only come to England a few weeks before so back then I did not know what I was missing.

"It was only the year after that I realised we had not been part of this massive cup. But you can compete in the FA Cup every year so it was the right choice to miss it that year."

Many people disagreed. For those that saw the absence of the holders from the world's oldest knock-out tournament as a national scandal, United's refusal to do much in the way of PR in Rio for the World Cup bid did not make the decision any easier to take - and neither did their results.

The reigning European and inter-continental champions - who had won the treble only a few months before - were hot favourites before the tournament began but ended up wilting in the 90 degree heat.

"It was the middle of the winter when we left England," Silvestre recalled. "We don't exactly come from the North Pole but it was a massive gap in terms of temperature. We used to lose around four kilos in sweat every time we trained or played."

Their lack of research into their opposition did not help either. "We knew very little," admits Silvestre, who had joined from Inter Milan in September 1999 and went on to play more than 350 games in nine years at Old Trafford.

"We found out about the other teams when we got there - there was no video footage on them so we were surprised."

It showed. United crashed out at the group stage, with their only win in three games at a largely empty Maracana Stadium coming over Australian part-timers South Melbourne.

In their first game, a draw with Mexican side Necaxa, David Beckham was shown a red card for a thigh-high challenge on Jose Milian and Ferguson was sent off for complaining about the decision. Things got worse when they were out-classed by Vasco da Gama, with Romario and Edmundo dominant for the Brazilians.

Like Gary Neville, who made two costly mistakes, Silvestre, playing alongside Jaap Stam in central defence, was given the runaround by Edmundo, who span past him to score a superb third goal in a 3-1 victory.

Silvestre still enjoyed himself, however. "It was like getting out my sticker album from when I was younger," he added. "Playing against Romario and Edmundo was amazing.

"When you are not used to it, you do not expect such skills and only geniuses can do what Edmundo did to me for his goal. It was good to play against those guys but they gave us a hard time.

"The pitch was slow and dry so it suited the Brazilian game rather than the English one which is fast. They had a slight advantage playing at home and the heat for us was difficult to cope with. "

In hindsight, the conditions were actually ideal for United to recharge their batteries for their Premier League run-in.

Accompanied by their own private security squad, they went for walks on the beach, chilled by the pool and did some training at altitude. Their only worry was a spot of sunburn.

The effect was obvious. What was a closely fought three-way title tussle involving leaders Leeds and Arsenal when United departed turned into a victory parade when they returned.

Their rivals all dropped points while they were away and United, who had enjoyed a 26-day break from league action between draws with Sunderland on 28 December and Arsenal on 24 January, ended up winning the title by 18 points from the Gunners.

"The trip gave us a break mentally. We came back refreshed in our legs and heads," said Silvestre, whose side won 11 and lost just one of their last 16 league games after getting back from Brazil.

United benefiting from an unofficial winter break did not go down well with Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, who said at the end of that campaign: "The league was organised for United this season. Of course this was a major factor in the championship."

Seeing Chelsea marching towards the title when they get back from Japan seems far less likely but could their 11-day break from domestic fixtures still prove beneficial? As well as getting to know his players, Benitez is also getting away from his biggest critics - the Blues fans who opposed his interim appointment.

He could well end up doing what United didn't and getting his hands on some silverware too, and with minimal effort - thanks to the restructuring of the tournament in the past 13 years that means the Blues start in the semi-finals.

"Chelsea have an advantage because they are only one step away from the final," Silvestre said. "It makes it a better format. And it is a competition worth winning, just like any other one."

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