I was asked an interesting question recently.
Which fans are more intense, British soccer, American NFL or Japanese baseball fans?
Having lived and worked in all three places, it was an easy question to answer.
It has to be the British soccer fan, I replied.
In Britain, just about everybody has a team they support. The sport is deeply ingrained in the culture.
In the U.S. and Japan, some people are ambivalent about sports. It’s not like that with soccer in Britain.
My point was driven home last week by the thousands of Manchester United fans who turned out to protest the takeover of the team by American sports tycoon Malcolm Glazer, owner of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Usually when a person worth more than $1 billion buys your favorite team, you are overjoyed.
Sort of like the folks who follow United’s Premier League rival Chelsea were, in 2003, when Russian oil magnate Roman Abramovich purchased the club.
Within two seasons, Abramovich had thrown around so much money on players and staff that his team won its first league title in 50 years and reached the semifinals of the European Champions League twice.
The 76-year-old Glazer, who is putting out more of his own cash ($503 million) to fund his $1.47 billion takeover of United than Abramovich did ($233 million) to buy Chelsea, is getting knocked for many reasons, one of the foremost being his reliance on borrowing to finance his purchase of the storied club.
Glazer needs financing to complete the deal because United’s sale price is much higher than Chelsea’s, and he doesn’t have the cash reserves to swing the deal alone.
The fans are worried that the heavy financing Glazer is using will result in higher ticket prices, the selling of the naming rights to revered Old Trafford and less money to purchase top-class players for the world’s most famous soccer team.
Manchester United finished a distant third behind Chelsea in the 20-team Premier League during the recently concluded 2004-2005 season, marking the third time in the past four seasons that is has placed third in league play.
If it were any other club, that might be fine, but not at Man U, where the championship is expected — every season.
In the 13 years of the Premier League, Man United has won the title nine times.
Which makes the recent uproar about Glazer’s takeover all the more irrational.
Soccer experts and fans alike will tell you that the team has been on the slide for awhile now. It’s not like it has just happened overnight.
Poor spending on new players, coupled with the aging of the team’s core group of regulars have combined to see United come up short on the pitch repeatedly in games it would have won handily just a few years back.
Who am I — an American — to make a judgment about Manchester United and its fans?
Well, I don’t think I am an idiot speaking from a vacuum.
To the contrary, I have followed the Red Devils for many years now and see a great majority of the team’s games live on satellite television each season.
I have also seen the club play in person a few times.
Man United’s Irish captain, Roy Keane, is a sportsman whom I truly admire, because he gives it everything he has — and expects his teammates to do the same — every time he puts on the uniform.
I grew up around soccer — my father was a coach on the collegiate level in the U.S. — and can remember well the glory days of the game in my own country, when the North American Soccer League was at its peak in the late 1970s.
When I was six years old, I was fortunate enough to see Pele play for his Brazilian club Santos in person.
Does that make me as passionate about the club or as knowledgeable about soccer as the fans who have grown up supporting Man United all their lives?
I don’t think so.
But passion and realism are two distinct entities. It is great to have both, but I don’t think the majority of Man U fans do at this moment.
The United fans are suffering from a serious case of idealism.
You know, “Well, this isn’t right because it has always been the way it is.”
Not very progressive thinking, in my book.
I truly believe their fears about Glazer are unfounded.
Did he threaten to move the Tampa Bay Buccaneers unless he got a new stadium built for the team?
Was the tax measure that helped fund it approved by the taxpayers in the Tampa area?
Did Glazer turn a lowly franchise into a Super Bowl champion by bringing in top players and coaches?
Is Glazer going to move Manchester United?
I would say that is about as likely as the New York Yankees moving to California.
In a worst case scenario, ticket prices go up, Old Trafford gets a corporate name and the team becomes competitive again.
One need to look back no further than the summer of 2003, when United was on the verge of acquiring young Brazilian star Ronaldinho from French first-division side Paris St. Germain.
It looked like a brilliant move, that was going to have a real impact on the team, at the time.
But, in the end, it didn’t come off.
The management of Man United wouldn’t cough up the few extra million pounds (a pittance for the world’s richest team) required to secure Ronaldinho’s services and the budding superstar signed with Barcelona.
Earlier this year, Ronaldinho — who played a key role in Brazil’s victory at the 2002 World Cup — was named the FIFA World Player of the Year for 2004.
On Sunday, the same day that United concluded its disappointing Premier League campaign, Barcelona — behind Ronaldinho — clinched the Spanish League crown.
The failure to sign Ronaldinho was just one of several mistakes the club has made in the past few years.
Kind of makes you think it might be time for some new management, doesn’t it?
I thought Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, whose team won the Premier League last season, said it best on Friday when asked about Glazer’s impending takeover of Man United.
“I don’t necessarily see this as a bad thing for football, or a bad thing for Manchester United,” said Wenger.
“I understand there is uncertainty from people in Manchester, but I don’t think you can convict a guy who hasn’t even made one decision.”