Liverpool, Real Madrid, Ajax: 11 weirdest pre-season friendlies of all time

After a mere few weeks of having to cope without it, there’s nothing more refreshing than the return of club football in pre-season.

Or at least, that was the case before the football calendar became bloated beyond belief and now appears to be never ending.

Nothing says pre-season more than waking up in the middle of the night to watch your club field an unrecognisable XI against a side you’ll never hear of again in the depths of East Asia, or in the sun of the United States.

They’re a strange phenomenon in the modern game, are pre-season friendlies, for that very reason above.

Back in the day, before an age of major commercialisation, friendlies existed merely to get squads match sharp before the full season got underway. That returned during the pandemic, too, with clubs unable to go on world tours.

But, now they’re back, and once again we’re all itching to get a glimpse of a new kit, or a new signing, or the same old mistakes going unaddressed. So much so that we’ll find a dodgy stream, get up at any hour of the day or even pay a fee to watch 90 minutes of meaningless football.

As a result, friendlies have made for some beautifully unconventional matchups over the years, between teams that not only have zero reason to be playing one another, but have zero reason to know that each other exist. And with pre-season fast approaching once again, we at GIVEMESPORT think it’s about time we pulled together a list of the very weirdest examples.

11. Juventus vs Notts County (2011)

Juve and Notts County have had a history together that dates back to 1903, when they replaced their faded pink home strip with the now famous black and white stripes. These were supplied by County.

The Old Lady have been known for their black and white stripes ever since – literally nicknamed I Bianconeri – and thus the two clubs have maintained a respect for one another. They played a friendly in 2011 to open Juve’s new stadium, which ended in a 1-1 draw.

Eljero Elia takes the ball away from a Notts County defender
TURIN, ITALY – SEPTEMBER 08: Eljero Elia of FC Juventus shields the ball from Julian Kelly of Notts County during the pre season friendly match between FC Juventus and Notts County on September 8, 2011 in Turin, Italy. (Photo by Valerio Pennicino/Getty Images)

10. FC United of Manchester vs Benfica (2015)

Celebrating the opening of their brand new ground Broadhurst Park, Manchester United breakaway club FC United welcomed Benfica to Moston for a friendly, just ten years after being created.

They lost just 1-0 on the night, but created an unforgettable Friday evening for fans as over 4,000 people packed into Moston to watch the two-time European Cup winners take on non-league outfit United. A penny for the thoughts of the away end regarding their trip to Moston…

9. Fluminense under-23 vs Exeter (2014)

In what world does the under-23 side of the four-time national champions of Brazil collide with the first-team of a club that have never played above the third tier of English football? You’ll be surprised to know there’s a connection.

Exeter toured South America in 1914 to spread awareness of the beautiful game on the continent – the ninth British side to do so at the time – but were also the first ever opponent of the Brazil national team. Fluminense and Exeter have enjoyed an alliance ever since, celebrating 100 years of the Selecao in 2014 with a 0-0 draw, played out in South America once again.

8. Heaton Stannington vs Gabon national team (2012)

Gearing up for the 2012 Olympics, the Gabon national team were looking for a friendly to prepare for the tournament. But with Newcastle United’s first-team being busy and their under-21s being away, Gabon would end up playing Heaton Stan – a non-league outfit from the local area.

So, Gabon, who fielded a 23-year-old Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, were now preparing for the Olympics by being kicked about in the North East cold, on a semi-pro pitch in front of a few hundred fans who had caught wind of the strange affair. Better yet, Heaton Stan ended up playing a weakened side because it was short notice, as they lost 4-0. A one-of-a-kind preparation for the Olympics.

7. Accrington Stanley vs Marseille (2019)

Accrington Stanley beat nine-time French league champions on a Thursday tea-time, in a rugby stadium in Eccles, Greater Manchester. No, seriously. That happened, exactly like we’ve just said.

Enjoying a spell in League One – the highest level they have ever played at – Stanley wound up 2-1 winners in a pre-season friendly in front of just over a thousand spectators. Despite Marseille’s best efforts – and their ability to make ten changes for the second half – Stanley prevailed, fielding two trialists in the process.

6. Valencia Mestalla vs Pontypridd Town (2014)

Renamed Pontypridd United ahead of their first season in the Cymru Premier – Wales’ top football division – Pontypridd Town travelled to Spain to play Valencia’s Mestalla side, playing in the Welsh third tier at the time.

An entirely part-time club with players having regular jobs ahead of being footballers, Pontypridd lost just 3-0 in Spain, in what was an unforgettable day out for the hundreds of supporters that had gone with the team, with TalkSPORT having picked up on the unusual match and promoting it significantly, prompting sponsorship from Wickes that helped fund the trip.

Man Utd hijack Malacia deal! (Football Terrace)

5. Deportivo La Coruna v Pontypridd Town (2015)

A year on from an unforgettable experience, Pontypridd were back in Spain, this time facing Deportivo’s second team.

The Welsh minnows secured the friendly through the Spanish connections that had secured their date with Valencia, but were unfortunately beaten 4-0 by the then La Liga outfit. Nothing to be ashamed of, though, and now they’re in the Welsh top-flight, what’s stopping a third trip to Spain?

4. Walsall vs Ajax (2018)

Ajax’s 2018/19 season is remembered for their youthful side’s historic run to the Champions League semi-final. But you would not have predicted that would be the case when learning about their friendly against Walsall before the season had started.

Managed by United manager Erik ten Hag, Ajax travelled to the West Midlands to prepare for the coming season, but were stunned in a shock 2-0 defeat at the hands of the League One outfit, who were relegated to League Two come the end of that campaign.

3. Thailand vs Liverpool (2009)

Football’s biggest clubs such as Liverpool naturally have attained huge worldwide followings over the years, so when they visit continents such as Asia, the fanfare around their visit is incredibly impressive.

In order to make the most of their visit in 2009, though, Liverpool faced a complete Thailand XI rather than a club side, to make the most of the big occasion. Go big or go home, right? Sure. Works for us.

Fernando Torres is hacked down against Thailand
BANGKOK, THAILAND – JULY 22: Fernando Torres of Liverpool competes with Thailand’s Suree Sukha during a pre-season match between Thailand and Liverpool FC, at Rajamangala National Stadium on July 22, 2009 in Bangkok, Thailand. (Photo by Athit Perawongmetha/Getty Images)

2. Bournemouth vs Real Madrid (2013)

Carlo Ancelotti welcomed in his first spell in charge of Real Madrid with a trip to the English coast, where he put out a near enough full strength squad on then Championship outfit Bournemouth.

No messing from Don Carlo, who let Cristiano Ronaldo et al run riot on the Cherries, in front of a home crowd. Ronaldo scored twice in a 6-0 romping, and gained cheers from everyone in the ground for his performance.

1. Plymouth vs Real Madrid (2006)

No, Real don’t just love English coastal towns. They actually met Plymouth in the Austrian Alps. Perhaps the biggest domestic football club ever taking on a side who would end up in League Two in 2011 in a country that neither side plays in. Insane.

And to make things ever weirder, Los Blancos could only manage a 1-0 win, being held off by Plymouth in a game that only took place because new manager Fabio Capello wanted to take Real to the retreat that Argyle had already booked. In exchange for kicking them out, he offered Plymouth a friendly and paid for the rest of their tour. Ian Holloway’s side kept Guti and Antonio Cassano quiet in the first half, but were beaten by a spot kick 15 minutes from time, scored by Julio Baptista.

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