As Manchester United prepare to take on the MLS All Stars today I can't help recalling what a massive headache it used to be as a football fan living in the States.
I first came to America in early 1988 when it was all domestic fart-gas lite beer and Ronnie Raygun touching Maggie up under the conference table. The US was resisting every attempt to wake up and smell the rest of the world, locked in a cultural diabetic coma based on donuts and geographic isolation. Football’s brief appearance eight years earlier was all but erased, Rodney Marsh and George Best a fond memory. I was in Florida, where Marsh and Best plied their wares, for Tampa Bay Rowdies and Fort Lauderdale Strikers, respectively.
I was 22 at the time. No formal education, an unhealthy appetite for virtually any drug, and travelling creatively on a shoestring, i.e. skint but managing to get pissed as arseholes every single night. It never occurred to me that this was anything other than the life of a really cool dude, even when I had eight cents to my name, a pair of borrowed flip-flops and a missing passport.
We’re told from birth that yanks are a mad bunch of crackpot visionaries who truly admire individualism, but once through customs and out on the weird streets, it becomes obvious it is we, not they, who enjoy the nonsense. Yanks are much more logical and analytical than they crack on. Consequently, American sports tend to be linear, numerical affairs. Very different from football’s ball-curling, mud-stained romance. Some yanks had heard of Manchester United, but Kuala Lumpuns probably followed the Red Devils a lot more closely. In the late-80s no-one would ever have expected to see United outsell the hockey playoffs and the basketball Finals in a million years. But that’s exactly what’s happened in 2011. More importantly, American ale has improved enormously since then, so we have something to accompany our bong hits and big screen HD coverage of Rooney’s transplanted napper gleaming in the New World sunshine. We have arrived.
I remember one morning in ’88, riding to work in the back of a slave wagon. I was wearing a white United away shirt and someone asked me what team it represented. When I told him, he asked, excitedly, “Oh, really? Do you play for them?”
“Yeah, mate, that’s why I’m sitting here, hungover, at half ****ing seven on a Friday morning, going to wax luxury yachts for 12 hours for a load of rich fat ****s while living in a hostel full of criminals,” I (unfortunately) didn’t reply. And this guy had heard of United. (Then again, we have some current players who may well end up in a similar predicament because they’re S***.)
Many yanks still regard soccer as a peasant sport, chiefly because “all’s ya need is a coupla coats for goals, and a ball, for Chrissakes!” The difference today is that some have struggled their way out of that linear straitjacket and now appreciate the beautiful game, as we football fans pretentiously call it.
I was wearing a white United away shirt and someone asked me what team it represented. When I told him, he asked, excitedly, “Oh, really? Do you play for them?”
When I married an American in late 1994 my fate was sealed. I was now part of this dysfunctional culture that invented its own sports, like a spoilt fat kid not allowed to play with those peasant boys who eschewed helmets and pads. I was now 29, and still bereft of any real education, money or ambition.
In New England everyone and his dog has a degree and a five year plan, so I was universally regarded as something of an idiot. I couldn’t understand why though; after all, I could have easily punched and kicked most of them into unconsciousness or even death. Didn’t they respect that? The answer’s no. This was the opposite of Manchester. They respected people who didn’t drink, try to be comical all the time or wander pointlessly abroad with no money. The fact I was crazy about soccer elicited cautious insults. Soccer’s for GIRLS, Limey, and don’t you forget it, was the motto, according to these potential punchbags.
Apparently the word “tough” in the US means “owns a lot of expensive accessories” or “arrogant c*** with a good job”. My missus bought me a short wave radio that proved vital in my tracking the Reds’ failure to retain the title that season; f****** West Ham put eleven men on the goal-line and Blackburn won it, despite losing at Anfield. Fortunately, I already owned a short wave boom box, and it was this that I booted vigorously upon the final whistle on May 14, 1995.
I can’t claim to have grown fond of the outdated BBC World Service jingles, but it was my only connection to live football for several years. I’ll never forget the day my dad called and said someone with the inexplicable moniker “Henning Berg” had cleared the ball off the goal-line during a match. Names like that can’t be just unleashed over the phone; they need breaking to you slowly. Subsequent years of torture followed, as I missed so many important matches, debuts and extracurricular discussions; the last minute TV schedule changes, when it was decided Monster Trucks was a bigger crowd pleaser than Man Utd vs. Arsenal, the refusal of the TV guide to even show details of soccer games, choosing to display some generic placeholder instead, the disdain of cable provider “call center” employees when rabid Englishmen phoned in four minutes after scheduled KO time, threatening to burn their dogs if the f****** match didn’t appear on Channel 41, pronto. It’s a wonder they didn’t take me away in a yellow van at times but the less said about that the better.
Things have changed though. No more BBC World Service and TV tantrums for me. It’s all Fox Soccer Channel on the satellite of love nowadays, every single match live and two for tuppence ha’ppenny. Last summer was spent in a super lemon haze of footballing bliss that had no precedent. This latest United tour is looking even better than 2010’s version, apart from the fact the MLS All-Star game is at Red Bull Arena with a capacity of just 25,000. Sounds s***, especially compared to last year’s Houston extravaganza in front of over 70,000 soccer crazy yankee doodlers. Red Bull Arena is America’s first purpose-built soccer stadium, and it needs paying for, so it’s hard lines.
It’s difficult to work out why this tour is so huge though. Fair enough, last year caught everyone unawares but this year’s is simply madness. It’s like an American football team scheduling a few games in England and outselling every major sporting fixture for months as a result, including the FA Cup final and the Ashes. I’ll assume it couldn’t possibly have trumped the Super Bowl, because that would be proper up the wall.
I’ll leave you with this: My parents are currently visiting. Last night, me and the ol’ feller were pulled over by cops for overrunning a stop sign. They took an age to check me out, possibly via Google on the in-car computer. When they finally came back they told me I was getting a written warning but no fine. After advising me not to keep a weapon in the car (truncheon), they turned to leave. One of them turned to me and said, “Go Man U, right?!”
I don’t know whether to be elated or worried sick…
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