x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Looking back at United's Club World Cup in Brazil

My first trip to Brazil with Manchester United was eventful but results at the World Club Championship didn't go our way.

I'm in beautiful Rio De Janeiro, where I've been a guest of the Soccerex convention for the past week. It's where people from the football world come to network and sell, where they do deals to buy 50 artificial pitches or lobby for the 2022 World Cup.

It's my second time in Rio, the first a decade ago for the inaugural Fifa World Club Championship. That event moved to Abu Dhabi last December - rebranded as the Club World Cup - where it will be staged again next month.

It's now a slick and well-organised event which doesn't get the international recognition it deserves. Maybe that will come with time because it's important that the champions of all the continents play.

Ten years ago, Manchester United were criticised for playing in the tournament because it meant pulling out of the FA Cup. The players were not too fussed either way. Sure, we loved the FA Cup and wanted to defend the tournament we had won, but escaping the British winter for three weeks on a beach in Rio in January appealed, too, as did playing in the Maracana in front of 80,000 fans.

We were the European champions, the treble winners no less, and I was the club's top scorer. Life was good. We got to our hotel in Rio and were immediately at ease, with days spent training and lounging around the pool. David Beckham took a few players down to the beach to play a local beach soccer side. The United players lost and asked them for a rematch: 11-a-side, on grass, at Old Trafford.

It didn't quite happen for us in the real tournament and we were beaten by the local side Vasco da Gama.

When Edmundo scored, the noise as loud as I'd heard in a football ground. It really meant something for the Vasco fans to beat the European champions and I don't blame them. We didn't fare well, nor did Real Madrid who'd taken a full squad too.

Back at the hotel, Nicky Butt, Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs and I sat by the pool, talking. We'd watched gliders high in the sky above us for two weeks. They were taking off from a nearby cliff and soaring over the nearby Atlantic Ocean. We talked about doing it ourselves.

The gaffer (Sir Alex Ferguson) would have gone crazy, so nothing was mentioned to him. I realised it was Friday 13 and ducked out with Giggsy, but Keaney and Butty didn't. An hour later, we heard screams from the sky. We looked up to see them circling above the hotel. They were having the time of their lives and still the manager didn't have a clue. There's no way he would have allowed his two central midfielders to do it and he only found out years later.

We didn't do ourselves justice, football-wise, in Rio, but three weeks in the South American sun did us no harm as we returned refreshed to overtake Arsenal and win another Premier League title.

I got the only goal in the top-of-the-table clash against Leeds United to help us on our way and my 100th United goal too.

This trip to Brazil has been equally memorable. I met the members of the 1970 Brazil World Cup side, without doubt the greatest team ever. I don't think they knew who I was, but I didn't care as I lined up for photos with Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho and the original Jules Rimet trophy. They were humble, great men; I was a star-struck autograph hunter.

Brazil is looking forward to staging the next World Cup in 2014. No country has won more than Brazil's five titles and none exports more footballers. It will be a great venue, but there are still major issues to overcome, the main one being crime.

Some of the delegates at Soccerex were mugged at gun point, an everyday occurrence in Rio, which is also staging the 2016 Olympics.

Brazil's economy is booming, but the gap between rich and poor is vast. I've sat in a beautiful hotel between the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches, but two miles away are crime-ridden favelas where the police don't go and guns rule. The rich live in gated communities and all know someone who has been robbed at gunpoint.

There will be no overnight fix and fans will have to be careful, as in South Africa, but I'm worried about the lack of progress with stadiums. Some venues have not started being built, but I guess that's the South American way.

I'd like to come back, though I've still not come round to the idea of jumping off a cliff in a glider like my former teammates.

sports@thenational.ae