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Red Devils are gods to Chinese fans
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By now, Sir Alex Ferguson has likely read millions of banners praising his coaching achievements on the pitch.

Adoring Chinese fans cheers for Manchester United at their training session in Hangzhou on Saturday.

But when his eyes spotted Chinese fans unfurling banners describing him as "my god", he said he was unprepared, calling the reception "something of a shock".

"It never ceases to amaze me the admiration that Manchester United attracts in the Far East, and none more so than here today," Ferguson said.

Manchester United flew into eastern China over the weekend after two recent triumphs against a Malaysian XI side and South Korea's FC Seoul. The Red Devils joined rivals Liverpool in romping through Asia to play up to their highly lucrative markets in the region.

Despite the loss of Portuguese goal machine Cristiano Ronaldo to his childhood idols Real Madrid, Man U's popularity in China continues to soar, evidenced by the crazed fans swarming into Hangzhou from throughout the nation.

Even Ferguson found himself a hot pursuit of fanatic fans.

"I completely trust Fergie. If I met him, I would say, 'You are my god forever,'" said Hou Xiaojun, who created a virtual shrine to Ferguson in Hangzhou. He and his wife sported flags and T-shirts printed with cult-of-personality slogans; Hou himself runs a website (fergie.cn) honoring the manager's achievements.

"I wasn't disappointed when Ronaldo went to Real," said the 29-year-old Beijinger. "I think (Michael) Owen will come through for us this season and some of the young players of today, like (Federico) Macheda, (Danny) Wellbeck or (Ravel) Morrison, will be the superstars of tomorrow."

MUTV commentator Stewart Gardner felt that the adulation awaiting United midfielder Park Ji-sung upon his return home to South Korea several days earlier paled in comparison. "This dwarves everything," he said. "It was hysteria."

It was much of the same frenzy for veteran left winger Ryan Giggs, whose name was plastered on the back of countless red jerseys as thousands of fans lined up outside the team's hotel near West Lake to greet them.

After watching teenaged Chinese girls tear their way through security barricades while clutching his poster on Saturday (One fan even held a placard reading: "No CR, no problem. Ryan's here."), Giggs said he was shocked at the rock-star reception awaiting him.

"I don't know if I was always this popular here because it's my first time in China," he told China Daily. "I'm a little surprised but it's great to see all the fans out supporting me."

Although Wayne Rooney, who played a crucial role in the team's Club Asian Cup success last year, has captured the hearts of many fans, Owen's pretty-boy looks and the longevity of Giggs and Ferguson strike a special chord with local fans.

"Loyalty is very important to Chinese people," said Zhang Xiaoxin, a 20-year-old student from Shanghai. "I used to like Ronaldo and Giggs, but now only Giggs. He is very loyal, and he plays beautiful football." After a pause he added: "I also like (Fernando) Torres, because he's so handsome, but Liverpool play too defensively."

Giggs has spent his entire career with the Red Devils since signing with them in 1987 as part of their inspirational youth training program. Ferguson is about to enter his 24th season at the helm after repeatedly postponing his retirement.

During that time, the no-nonsense Scot has taken United to new heights. As well as racking up 11 FA Cups, the team won its 18th Premier League title last season.

United also claim to have 333 million fans worldwide, the lion's share of them (193 million) in Asia, and the majority of those coming from China (71 million). Recent overtures to Chinese fans include signing striker Dong Fangzhuo, who returned home last year after an unsuccessful stint; opening a megastore in Macao; and embarking on biennial trips to the country since 2005.

Giggs helped reassure fans on Saturday by saying that United has a strong history of bouncing back, and would not be at the mercy of Liverpool or Chelsea in next season's Premier League race despite the loss of two pivotal strikers.

"It's true that we've lost Cristiano and Carlos (Tevez), but that's what's so great about Manchester United, we continue to stay strong and move forward," he said.

(China Daily July 27, 2009)

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