23 years ago this week, Roy Keane was at the centre of one of the most decisive stories in British football as he led Manchester United out to Brazil for the first-ever FIFA Club World Championship.
The tournament was scheduled to kick off on January 5 and Sir Alex Ferguson’s team withdrew from that year’s FA Cup so that they could partake in the showpiece event.
It became a huge story, as United were defending cup champions, and everyone connected with English football weighed in on the decision to travel to Brazil.
United’s choice was first communicated in June 1999 and they said they wanted to compete for the ‘ultimate honour’ of becoming the first world club champions.
The resulting conversation saw figures from all across British society, including Prime Minister Tony Blair, weigh in.even launched a ‘Save the FA Cup’ campaign in July 1999.
United put the criticism behind them and travelled to Brazil for their opening game of the tournament against Necaxaat at the Maracanã Stadium on January 6. The Mexicans were the reigning CONCACAF Champions Cup winners and they scored inside 15 minutes through Cristián Montecinos. United slowly found their feet and Dwight Yorke salvaged a point for his side by scoring an 81st-minute equaliser.
Two days later United were back in action and they faced Vasco da Gama, who opened their campaign with a 3-0 win over South Melbourne. The Série A side had a star-studded team that included Romário, who won the World Cup in 1994 with Brazil. The two teams met under the gaze of 73,000 fans at the Maracanã and they were treated to a brace from Romário in the middle of the first half. They also saw Edmundo, who won the Copa America with Brazil in 1997, make it 3-0 just before half-time.
United’s final game in the group was against reigning OFC Champions League winners South Melbourne. They made light work of the Australian side and two goals from Quinton Fortune gave them a 2-0 win. This wasn’t enough to get second place in the group and United failed to qualify for the third place play-off.
Once they were up the mountain, the foursome decided that they were going to do some paragliding.
The story is told in Cole’s autobiography,, and he explains the fear in his eyes when he realised the date.
“Hold on, what date is it?” I ask.
“It’s Friday,” says Giggsy. “Not the day, the date.”
“Oh, it’s the 13th,” he writes.
“Now, I’m not the most superstitious man around but I’m getting out of there. There is no way I am jumping off a mountain and floating on the wind on Friday the 13th. ‘See you later’.
“The thing to know here is, activities like paragliding are frowned upon at football clubs like Manchester United, even if strapped to instructors as they were going to be,” Cole explains.
“Managers and contracts tend to steer their multi-million-pound assets away from such extreme sports. I sit back down by the pool and it’s not long before you can hear shouts coming from high above.
“‘Oi, d***heads!’ We all look around before looking up. ‘Down there, you d***heads!’
High above the hotel, three bird-like figures, hovering, shouting their abuse. ‘What a bunch of d***heads.’
“As the lads look confused, I’m trying not to laugh. The gaffer sits up from his sun lounger and says ‘Who the hell are those idiots?’ I shake my head, trying to suppress even a smile.
“‘Must be a few tourists who don’t like United, boss,’ I say. ‘Idiots,” and he plays off seeing Keane flying over his United teammates and manager.
United travelled back to England empty-handed and they returned to league action against Arsenal at Old Trafford on January 24. That game finished in a 1-1 draw and United went on to only lose one league game over the proceeding five months.
It was a sprint to the title that made sure United retained their Premier League title and they finished the season with two pieces of silverware at Old Trafford.
The other trophy was the Intercontinental Cup, and Roy Keane scored the only goal in that game against Palmeiras in Toyko.
The only other trophy that United were in the running for was the Champions League, and Real Madrid ended their hopes of becoming the first British team since Nottingham Forest to retain the European Cup.
Despite this lacklustre end to the season at Old Trafford, United still got to say they were world champions thanks to Keane and his strike against Palmeieras.