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'It's going to be one of those crazy days'

sports Updated: May 28, 2011 17:56 IST
Manchester United

When English champion Manchester United and Spanish title winner Barcelona meet in the UEFA Champions League final Saturday at Wembley Stadium, the event is expected to equal, and perhaps surpass, the Super Bowl in worldwide audience and to provide another glimpse at the continued popularity growth of the sport in the US.

For the second year in a row, the game will be shown on network television in the United States.

For longtime soccer fans who have seen the Champions League grow from a niche, fill-the-air-time event on cable two decades ago to one deserving of weeklong pregame programming and a spot on network television, it's evidence of the continued rise in the sport's popularity.

At the very least, the belief is that the final, like the World Cup, can provide another opportunity for casual fans in the U.S. to appreciate the sport.

This year's game pits what is largely considered to be the two best teams in the world, and two of the most storied clubs in history.

Manchester United has won an English record 19 league championships, plus three European titles; Barcelona, 21 Spanish league titles and three European crowns.

When Barcelona and Manchester United met in the Champions League final in 2009, a 2-0 Barca win, an average audience of 109 million people tuned in, surpassing the Super Bowl's 106 million that year. The numbers have been substantially smaller in the United States, though they have been growing.

Last year's final between Germany's Bayern Munich and Italy's Inter Milan, the first time the game was played on a Saturday and its first time shown on Fox, attracted 1.6 million viewers (2.2 million when combined with Fox Deportes). That was up 14 percent from 2009, when the final attracted 1.4 million on ESPN (2.07 million when combined with ESPN Deportes).

With a more appealing matchup in the championship this year, those numbers likely will increase again. Fox had increases in U.S. viewership for this year's semifinals, with both legs combined totaling 2.95 million, up from 1.69 million in 2010.

"We are expecting that the viewership will be higher this time around than last year based on the matchup for sure; probably 25 percent is a conservative figure compared to last year and perhaps a bit more on Fox Deportes," said Lou D'Ermilio, senior vice president of media relations for Fox Sports.

The star power between the two clubs, who will meet again in an exhibition at Washington's FedEx Field on July 30, is substantial.

Barcelona features the world's top player, Lionel Messi, the Argentine forward who has captivated fans and mystified defenses. The 23-year-old Messi has netted an astounding 52 goals in 54 games this season.

Behind him in midfield are two other players who were nominated for FIFA's 2010 Ballon d'Or prize for world player of the year - Andres Iniesta, a masterful passer with extraordinary vision on the field, and Xavi, another of the game's most proficient and effective distributors.

In all, seven players who started in the World Cup final for champion Spain likely will be in the lineup for Barcelona.

Manchester United, considered by some to be the most popular club in the world, features another of the game's most dangerous finishers. England striker Wayne Rooney (15 goals, 13 assists), despite an up-and-down season, remains a threat to score at any moment.

A defense that has given up just four goals in the Champions League is led by Serbian defender Nemanja Vidic and Dutch goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar; meantime, Mexican striker Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez (21 goals) has had a superb debut season.

In an exclusive partnership with The Wshington Post.