Asian fans prepare to tune in for Manchester showdown in FA Cup final

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Manchester United;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Manchester United</a> supporters in Singapore cheer the squad upon their arrival at Changi Airport in the city in July 2001.</span><span>Photograph: Jonathan Drake/Reuters</span>

In order to watch Liverpool beat Everton in the 1986 FA Cup final on a 100-inch screen in Singapore’s Hyatt Hotel, hundreds of fans paid around £60 in today’s money lured by the promise of pizza, hot dogs and beer as well as, weirdly, the presence of Manchester United players.

The Red Devils had arrived at Changi Airport a couple of days previously for a friendly to be greeted by more than 300 fans at the airport, with Frank Stapleton an especially big draw. The Barcelona-bound Mark Hughes was popular too and trotted out the old “I knew we had followers here but not to this extent,” line. Kevin Moran, jet-lagged and talking about the need for sleep amid questions regarding his sending-off in the previous year’s FA Cup final, may not have made the watchalong party but a good time was had by all, especially Liverpool fans, in the Hyatt and elsewhere in the city.

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“In the eighties, FA Cup final night was a special night in Singapore, and people met friends, drank beer and watched the big game,” says Gerard Chin. “It felt like an occasion then but now there are so many games to watch that it is not quite the same any more, especially for younger fans.”

Before Singapore separated from Malaysia in 1965, it used to take part in the Malaya Cup, and sometimes still did after. It is one of Asia’s oldest and biggest domestic knockout tournaments. The English version was a big deal, too. In the 1940s and 50s finals were broadcast on radio and, later, television. This Saturday in Kuala Lumpur, Georgetown and elsewhere, there will still be fans sitting outside in bars and restaurants to watch Manchester United play Manchester City.

“The FA Cup is still widely appreciated in Malaysia,” says Haresh Deol, co-founder of Twentytwo13, a Kuala Lumpur-based news organisation. “But we must realise that interest in specific competitions is not as intense as we are spoilt for choices in today’s sporting landscape.” If the FA Cup still has some hold in certain southeast Asian hotbeds, it was different for countries further east from Wembley, such as South Korea, China and Japan.

The first time I remember the cup final being shown in Korea was 2005 and, it is safe to say, not many in that Seoul bar were interested in a goalless draw between Manchester United and Arsenal that was eventually settled by Patrick Vieira in the penalty shootout . The signing of Park Ji-sung soon after meant football fans in Korea – where Premier League games were hitherto only shown intermittently – were forced to watch every Manchester United match for the next seven years, regardless of the opposition and other available fixtures.

Had Park played in an FA Cup final it would have been different, and that is the way it is mostly these days in Asia. Who is playing determines much of the interest. “The cup final is not that much of a big deal in Pakistan,” says Umaid Wasim of Dawn, one of Pakistan’s leading newspapers. “But with United taking on City and with so much at stake for them, including a Europa League berth, there is definitely interest. City fans, meanwhile, are looking forward to their club completing a Double.”

There is an old saying in Singapore that you can tell how old someone is by the English team they support, and there are fans of a certain age who remain fond of Blackburn on the back of their Premier League title victory in 1994-5. The western perception that Asian supporters are fickle and shallow may be unfair but younger followers are naturally going to be more attracted to Pep Guardiola, Erling Haaland and trebles than whoever the United coach happens to be and an eighth-place finish. A City win would add to the narrative that they are now the Manchester team to support in Asia.

“United at one time probably were the most-supported club in Pakistan,” says Wasim. “Their fans are largely those who started following them in the 90s, but younger people are generally more inclined towards City.” Malaysia is still a United stronghold, though this too could be under threat. “United can’t be relying on past glory forever,” said Deol. “The younger fans will not be able to relate to that.”

A surprise FA Cup win may have eastern Reds smiling again whether they are watching in the Hyatt Hotel or elsewhere, but it is unlikely to be enough to turn the heads of those looking for an English team to get on board with.