Football Features

9 of the weirdest pre-season friendlies – and the reasons behind them

By Ollie Thomas

Published: 22:45, 17 July 2023

Pre-season is a very bizarre period for football fans around the globe.

For many, it is the only chance they’ll get to see their team play in Europe – albeit, a tour of Austria is relatively difficult to get excited about. Fans spend most of their time reading through their club’s fixture list saying ‘who?’.

Often, fans get excited just at the prospect of playing a team they’ve actually heard of, so when your local League One side gets pitted against the 2018 Europa League finalists, it’s a pretty big deal. That’s exactly what happened to the residents of Accrington when Marseille traded the south of France for Salford to play the Lancashire side in July 2019.

This isn’t the only bizarre fixture to be thrown up in a pre-season. So with that in mind, we took a look at nine of the weirdest pre-season friendlies and the story behind them.

LA Galaxy II vs Wrexham – 2023

How often is it the reserves of an MLS side meet a League Two team from England? Well, twice apparently. Wrexham have become a globally-recognised football club thanks to their charismatic Hollywood owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, and that has seen them travel across the pond for some pre-season action.

This isn’t the Red Dragons first visit to the United States this year after Reynolds and McElhenney rewarded their players with a knees-up in Las Vegas after they clinched promotion out of the National League, and they will now enjoy four games stateside as they prepare for a League Two return in 2023/24.

As well as facing Manchester United and Chelsea, Wrexham will also take on LA Galaxy II and Philadelphia Union II. The fixtures may not seem so strange right now given Wrexham’s well-documented rise under Reynolds and McElhenney, but if you chucked a Wrexham fan that fixture list four years ago, they probably would have questioned your sanity.

Accrington Stanley 2-1 Marseille – 2019

We’re not sure what’s weirder: the fact that Marseille played Accrington Stanley or the fact that they actually ended up losing.

Played at the AJ Bell Stadium (home of rugby union’s Sale Sharks) in front of just over 1,000 people, Stanley raced into a 2-0 lead before half-time and were able to hold on, despite former Newcastle winger and 2018 World Cup winner Florian Thauvin bagging the French side a consolation. Thauvin was not the only big name to feature: a certain Dimitri Payet also played but couldn’t drag his team to victory.

Marseille had already planned to come to England for a training camp, something which Andy Holt (Stanley’s owner) caught wind of. Holt simply contacted the club about arranging a game and, before he knew it, it was on. We can only imagine what Marseille fans thought when they saw the result: “Accrington Stanley? Qui sont-ils?”

Plymouth Argyle 0-1 Real Madrid – 2006

The story behind this friendly is just as brilliant as you would expect. Fabio Capello had just taken charge of Real Madrid and decided that he wanted to take his side on a last-minute training camp to Austria. The club had been there before and tried to return to the hotel where they had previously stayed.

Only there was already a team staying there: Plymouth Argyle, managed by Ian Holloway. Plymouth were, understandably, reluctant to leave and disrupt their pre-season preparation. Headed by Holloway, they certainly didn’t roll over for the Spanish giants. In the end, they agreed to make way for Madrid, who invited them to play in a friendly as a show of gratitude.

Argyle put up a fight, narrowly losing 1-0 thanks to a Julio Baptista penalty with 15 minutes to go. What a result it could have been.

This isn’t the only time Real Madrid have faced off against fairly random British opposition: in 2016, Los Blancos faced Bournemouth on the south coast, winning 6-0. They also played Shamrock Rovers in 2009, again only narrowly winning 1-0 after Karim Benzema came off the bench to bag the winner. A new Real Madrid signing made his debut that day. His name? Cristiano Ronaldo. Wonder how that move worked out.

Juventus 1-1 Notts County – 2011

Notts County had the privilege of playing the first game in Juventus’ brand new stadium. They were invited to play by Juve due to the historic links between the clubs: of course, Juventus famously got their black and white kit inspiration from County.

Played in front of a capacity crowd, Luca Toni opened the scoring for a Juventus side featuring Gianluigi Buffon, Andrea Pirlo and Alessandro del Piero. However, County famously ruined the party as Lee Hughes equalised in the 87th minute to ensure this historic match didn’t go to plan for the Old Lady.

The result has gone down as arguably County’s most impressive in their entire history.

Hibernian 0-6 Barcelona – 2008

Where did Pep Guardiola’s illustrious managerial career begin? A UEFA Super Cup victory, perhaps? In front of a capacity crowd at the Nou Camp against a European giant? No: it began at Murrayfield (the home of Scottish rugby) against Hibernian.

Having faced Hearts at the same venue the previous summer, Barca decided to return to Edinburgh to face their rivals. In true Guardiola style, Barcelona fielded what was more or less a full-strength team, and ended up comfortably beating Mixu Paatelainen’s side 6-0. On a pitch boasting the likes of Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Yaya Toure, it was a certain Lionel Messi who ran the game and was named Man of the Match.

Fluminese U23s 0-0 Exeter City – 2014

Here’s a fact that I’m sure you didn’t know: Brazil’s first-ever game of football was in Rio de Janeiro against Exeter City in 1914. The Grecians were on tour in Argentina and decided to stop off in the Brazillian city. Rio and Sao Paulo joined forces to form a ‘Brazil’ side, who took on Exeter in what is recognised as their first international fixture.

To celebrate the 100 year anniversary of this happening, Exeter flew back out to South America to take on Fluminese U23s in what is quite possibly the most random fixture you will ever see. The game itself was competitive: played in front of 600 invited guests, Exeter had two goals disallowed in a draw which manager Paul Tisdale described as ‘fair’.

A year later, Exeter tried their luck against Fluminese U19s but lost 2-0 at St. James Park.

Marlow FC 2-3 Kuwait – 2019

Okay, we’ve changed our mind: this is definitely the most random fixture you’ll ever see.

Kuwait were in the UK in 2019 on a training camp and to get some match action under their belt, they decided to reach out to Marlow and arrange a game. Marlow were in the eighth tier of English football at the time and gave the then-156th best national team a very good run for their money.

Aylesbury United 0-7 England – 1988

Maybe playing non-league opposition in preparation for an international tournament isn’t as weird as we thought? Just before Euro ’88, Bobby Robson took his England side to Buckinghamshire to face Aylesbury in a friendly played behind closed doors (boo!).

Surely, with it being a week before a massive summer in West Germany, England would just play their reserves? Not quite: Gary Lineker, Bryan Robson, John Barnes, Peter Beardsley, Glenn Hoddle, Chris Waddle all featured, with Beardsley bagging a confidence-boosting hat-trick.

Unfortunately, England ended up crashing out of the Euros having lost every game.

The entire Dallas pre-season tour – 1967

There is literally nothing normal about this tour at all. Nothing.

Dallas Tornado had embarked on a six-month world tour, funded by a Texan oil tycoon. Part of their tour was in Asia. Asia is now a fairly common place for teams to travel to before their season begins. Back then, however, it probably wasn’t advisable.

Dallas’ fixtures were somewhat bizarre: a 2-1 defeat to the Iranian Air Force was followed by a comfortable 2-0 victory against a Pakistan XI. The squad then got split up due to visa issues, leaving half of the players and staff stranded in the Bengali jungle. They were forced to crawl through a hole in a fence, with wild tigers roaming the vicinity and sleeping guards ready to shoot unknown figures at any time.

The tour briefly got back on track with a 4-1 victory against an India XI, but a 4-2 defeat to Singapore was marred by fans stoning the team at full-time, screaming ‘Yankee go home!’ in what effectively turned into a riot. During the game, a player on the Singapore team took the corner flag out and ATTACKED A DALLAS PLAYER WITH IT.

Having escaped that fiasco, the team moved onto Vietnam where the small matter of the Vietnam War was well underway. The Dallas side managed two draws, playing in Saigon just 45 days before the start of the Tet Offensive.

This six-month ‘warm-up’ tour consisted of 32 games: unsurprisingly, the team was absolutely exhausted and their season was a disaster: they won four, lost 26 and ended on a goal difference of -81. If ANY pre-season tops Dallas Tornado’s of 1967, something is seriously wrong.