Thousands out to watch Real Madrid ... practice
TORONTO - A highlight moment of the season for Toronto FC will be little more than another preliminary step in the recreation of international soccer's galacticos for Real Madrid.
Fresh off a staggering spending spree that hauled in a host of new stars including glamour boys Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka, the storied Spanish side faces the Major League soccer club Friday night at BMO Field (7:30 p.m. ET) still trying to integrate all its new pieces together.
Manager Manuel Pellegrini said there was "a big possibility" that Kaka and Xabi Alonso, whose transfer from Liverpool was just finalized Wednesday, would make their Madrid debuts in the friendly, which was described by Toronto coach Chris Cummins as "a great honour."
Different outlooks for both men, to be sure, on a game that brings one of the world's most prestigious sports teams before a Canadian audience.
"First of all, it's evaluation," Pellegrini said through a translator at a filled-beyond capacity news conference Thursday. "(It's also) having an opportunity to have the new players adapt to each other, get to meld and have the right understanding of the players on the field, as well as start practising new tactics and the new way of play that Real Madrid will be showing this next season."
Real Madrid heads into the new campaign as one of soccer's most intriguing teams after it shelled out 254 million euros (C$392 million) on eight signings during the off-season, highlighted by the transfers of Ronaldo from Manchester United for a world-record fee of 94 million euros (C$145 million), Kaka from AC Milan for 65 million euros (C$100 million) and Karim Benzema from Lyon for 35 million euros (C$54 million).
Alonso cost a reported 30 million euros (C$46 million), the final addition to a group that also includes Valencia central defender Raul Albiol, Liverpool right back Alvaro Arbeloa, Almeria striker Alvaro Negredo and Getafe midfielder Esteban Granero.
The binge came under Florentino Perez, who returned to the club presidency in June in place of Ramon Calderon, who resigned in January following a vote-rigging scandal. Stung by watching arch-rival Barcelona become the first Spanish club to claim three trophies in a season with league, Copa del Rey and Champions League titles last year, Perez embarked on recreating the club's Galacticos Era earlier this decade, when he brought in superstars like David Beckham, Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Luis Figo.
Local soccer fans were so eager to see them that an open practice Thursday night nearly filled the 20,000-capacity BMO Field. They cheered every pass and shot during the light workout, although one fan had to be tackled by security and police after charging at the players as they lightly jogged around the pitch's perimeter.
As eager as the fans were to watch Real Madrid, Toronto FC was similarly excited about the prospects of playing the club. Asked if he was looking for a transfer, Canadian defender Jim Brennan smirked as he replied "I wish."
"Every player wants to play against the best players in the world. These are fantastic players," added Cummins. "And as a coach, you want to put yourself up against the best managers in the world. So it's a great opportunity for us to go out there and play against terrific players."
Madrid already has a few games in, beating Shamrock Rovers 1-0 at the end of a training camp in Ireland, followed by a tie, a win and a loss at the Peace Cup exhibition tournament in Spain.
The club's North American tour wraps up against D.C. United on Sunday, with three more friendlies to follow before its league opener against Deportivo La Coruna at the month's end.
The expectations are sky-high for Madrid given its spectacular off-season so the team needs to use the warmup games properly.
"The first challenge is to win ... obviously we have to go after the championship of each and every competition that we play at," said Pellegrini. "At the same time the other challenge is the responsibility of having a style of game that will allow Real Madrid to satisfy all the fans that go to the stadium every week."
Added goalkeeper Iker Casillas: "We know we have a team that is sure to be able to bring the results in all major the competitions in Europe."
Toronto FC jumped through some hoops to bring Real Madrid over for the friendly, spending $250,000 to install a temporary grass field (made up of sod rolls 30-metres long and 10-centimetres thick) that will be ripped up and thrown away Sunday.
The Spanish side refused to play on the artificial turf that normally covers the BMO Field pitch, and the decision to spend so much money on the real stuff for an exhibition game drew the ire of some Toronto FC players, who have long despised the fake surface.
"Because Real Madrid comes here, we go and put grass in? What does that mean to me as a player for TFC? We don't get that respect?" star striker Dwayne De Rosario told reporters back in June.
Installing a permanent grass field that can be heated and aerated would cost an estimated $3.5 million and while the team is willing to ante up, there are other hurdles. In particular, the community use stipulation that helped get the place built requires artificial turf for year-round activity.
Providing an alternative location, perhaps at a new practice facility, would allow Toronto FC to satisfy community needs and put permanent real grass at BMO Field.
Speculation has been profits from the exhibition with Real Madrid might help make it all happen.
"There's a lot of cameras here, the last time I saw this many it was at my wedding," joked Cummins. "I think it just shows you as a club how far Toronto has gone for us to be able to entertain teams like this."