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Legends games increasingly key for Europe's elite to keep fans on board

Man United vs. Real Madrid legends 2013
Man United vs. Real Madrid will always attract attention, no matter who is playing.

Anfield will be full on Saturday, even though virtually every member of Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool squad will be away, somewhere in the world, on international duty.

As most supporters will attest, the international break is no substitute for club football, especially when only friendlies are being staged ahead of the World Cup.

But the game's elite clubs have now found a way to ease their fans' withdrawal symptoms, at the same time as raising funds for charity and, more strategically, keeping their global brands in the public eye at a time when the domestic game has closed down for two weeks.

The Liverpool Legends game this weekend against their Bayern Munich counterparts -- when the likes of Steven Gerrard, Robbie Fowler and Dirk Kuyt will take on Lothar Matthaus, Owen Hargreaves and Bixente Lizarazu -- is the latest example of the growing popularity of such fixtures.

Manchester United and Real Madrid set the ball rolling on the "Legends Tour" with an encounter in the Santiago Bernabeu in 2012 designed to raise funds for the Real Madrid Foundation.

A year later, over 60,000 fans turned out to watch the two clubs meet again at Old Trafford, with the money raised this time going to United's Foundation.

The years since have seen Barcelona and Bayern join the party -- both clubs have staged home and away Legends fixtures against United -- with Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea also forming Legends teams with the same charitable intentions.

Since 2013, United have raised £2.5 million for their Foundation from the home games against Real, Barca and Bayern, while the club have also played Liverpool in Stockholm, in September 2015, and contested a fixture against an Australia Legends in Perth in February 2017.

But beyond the primary objective to raise funds for charity, there is also a bigger picture when it comes to the Legends games.

"Everything raised goes to charity," one source involved with the Legends games told ESPN FC. "But it would also be fair to suggest that the clubs who take part see it as an opportunity to project the strength of their brand and their historical depth.

"When these games are played, they serve as a reminder of why these clubs are biggest and most popular in the world. Fans turn out in huge numbers to see players from their club's successful eras turn out again, and at the same time, millions are raised for good causes."

Denis Irwin, a member of United's Treble-winning team in 1999, is a regular in the club's Legends team and he admits that the initiative has become something of phenomenon.

"The crowds are always amazing, usually between 50-60,000," Irwin told ESPN FC. "But it's great for the fans to see the lads playing together again. It's still very competitive. Players only know one way to play, and that's to win, so we can't wait until some of the more recent players retire and come to join us.

"But it's a growing thing. Liverpool came on board after us, started playing a few matches, while Arsenal have played matches recently. Celtic also sell out easily too. Football has grown so much bigger in recent years and we travel all over the world now because the big clubs can always attract supporters and TV coverage."

Paul Scholes (R) vies with Real Madrid legend Luis Figo
Top former stars like Luis Figo and Paul Scholes are still ultra-competitive.

In an increasingly congested battle for commercial exposure, the world's biggest and most successful clubs are now attempting to contest Legends games at least once a year.

Chelsea Legends are due to play Inter Milan at Stamford Bridge on May 18 in a game that will see Gianfranco Zola and Dennis Wise come up against Javier Zanetti and Youri Djorkaeff, while Real announced earlier this week plans to meet Arsenal Legends, home and away, in June and September this year.

"For Real Madrid, it's an honour to be able to celebrate this charitable footballing event with the historic Arsenal," said Real Madrid president Florentino Perez. "A club friend, legendary, with a magnificent record and, above all, a club with values that emanate from the sport."

When Real face Arsenal, names such as Robert Pires, Sol Campbell and Freddie Ljungberg will turn out for the Gunners against Real legends including Raul, Roberto Carlos and Xabi Alonso.

For many Gunners fans, it may be a painful reminder of their glorious past when compared to their present day difficulties, but there is no substitute for wallowing in nostalgia.

And the next step could see the Legends games develop into a money-spinning seniors tour on a par with golf and tennis.

"We've seen it in golf and tennis, with a lot of ex-players going on to play as seniors and their tours are really popular," Irwin said. "Football is a bit different, though, because for the players, it gets harder as you get older.

"I'm now in my 50s and it's a struggle, but newly retired players are coming along all the time, so the Legends games will only get bigger."

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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