Fans from all over Asia in Thailand to catch a glimpse of their heroes
BANGKOK - Iran, Hong Kong, India, Malaysia, Singapore - no matter where they are from, thousands of Manchester United and Liverpool fans have descended upon Bangkok this week with the same purpose: to catch a glimpse of their heroes.
As two of the world's biggest football clubs bring a taste of north-west England to South-east Asia this week and present an unprecedented chance to watch the historic rivals live, fans from all over the continent are only happy to lap it all up.
Each supporter has arrived in the Thai capital looking to get up close with the stars and walk away with a reason to grin - be it just an autograph or a selfie.
Liverpool and Manchester United - whose official spirits partner is Chivas Regal - will face each other at the Rajamangala Stadium on Tuesday (July 12), as part of their pre-season tours. It will be the first such match between overseas clubs hosted in this region since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
The cheapest tickets are selling for an eye-watering 5,000 baht (S$194.50) and go up to as much as 25,000 baht.
Ali Mofakhami has travelled over 5,000 km from Teheran in the hopes of meeting Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp or as the Iranian described : god.
"It would be a dream come true to meet Klopp," the 31-year-old told The Straits Times at the St Regis Bangkok Hotel, where the Reds are based. "He has done so much for Liverpool and this period is so special for the fans because we have had plenty of good moments. I just want to meet him and tell him how great he is."
Mofakhami shared that he had spent close to US$2,000 (S$2,800) on his flight and accommodation to be here. He was not the only one.
Fans like him have flocked to the hotel in their hundreds as they wait at a cordoned-off area outside the lobby for a sight of the stars.
For Annie Goldman, 38, and her two young sons - Liverpool fan Tanner, 10 and eight-year-old Duke who supports United - coming to Thailand was an opportunity they could not turn down. The trio were standing at the hotel entrance, hoping to see the players.
It was the family's first time out of Hong Kong, where they are based, since the pandemic. Goldman said: "The boys are big fans of the clubs and it is so wonderful that we get to watch them in our own backyard. Tanner told me while we were on the way here that his heart was pounding and he's always watched all the games on TV so he could not be more excited to be here. These moments are going to be priceless for them."
Annie Goldman with her sons Tanner (left) and Duke outside the St Regis Bangkok Hotel. ST PHOTO: DEEPANRAJ GANESAN
Fans in Asia were previously spoiled by annual visits from the big football clubs. But they have missed the presence of these teams, who have skipped their lucrative pre-season tours of Asia for the past two years due to the pandemic.
This is the first time Liverpool have returned to Thailand since the club's 2015-16 pre-season tour while the Red Devils were last in town in 2013.
About 2.4km away from the St Regis Hotel, there is another sea of red at the Athenee Hotel, where the United team are staying. From day to night, there have been at least 200 fans who are there to catch the stars.
Malaysian Muhammad Azrel, 44 was one of them. He said he had spent about $2,800 for his trip here.
The Penang-based United fan made the trip along with over 15 friends who support either the Red Devils or Liverpool. He said: "Even if the team has not been doing well, the belief and support in the club will still be there. The rivalry between both clubs is special and how often can we say that we saw both teams face each other in Asia? I had to be here!"
Not every fan feels the same way though.
Singaporean Mohamad Saiful, 33, who had paid $740 to watch the friendly match, sold his ticket after learning of Cristiano Ronaldo's absence from the Asia Tour.
The Portuguese superstar, 37, did not travel with the squad after being given time off to deal with a family issue. His Old Trafford future has been the subject of intense speculation after he reportedly told the club of his desire to leave in order to play in the Champions League next season.
Saiful, who added that he was a life-long United fan, said: "I was expecting more signings from the club and for Ronaldo and his teammates to come and put on a show. But when I learnt he was not coming, I was very pissed off. It is not going to be special without him."
But for Thai fan Kittisak Waniwisutchai, Ronaldo's absence has its merits. The 36-year, who flew to Bangkok from Lampang in northern Thailand, was emotional after getting his kit autographed by Bruno Fernandes.
Kittisak said: "At the end of the day, the club is bigger than him. Actually, without him coming, it is easier to get autographs and selfies with the players because it is not so crowded."