Buccaneers Leave Manchester Disunited

It’s not an overstatement to suggest that the two greatest sporting brands in the world hail from Europe. This may come as a surprise to the more insular and jaded Americans, but in Real Madrid and Manchester United we have a pair of soccer outfits boasting the largest incomes, profits, spending power and fan base of their kind on the planet.

Real Madrid has won the principal club competition, the European Cup, on a remarkable nine occasions. Manchester United have managed a mere two wins in the same competition, launched in 1955, yet have built a worldwide reputation on grounds beyond mere trophy gathering.

For reasons that owe something to Britain’s colonial past — there will always be a residual interest in UK sports clubs in Africa, Asia, Australia and the West Indies, for historical reasons — coupled with United’s cavalier and attacking style (see commercially successful style) the Manchester club has in fact outshone its dazzling Spanish rivals.

However, a further reason which should be cited for United’s global fame harkens back to a dark and tragic moment in the team’s annals. In February 1958, while returning from a continental triumph having clinched an important victory in Belgrade, United’s plane crashed in Munich. Seven players on a young team, seen potentially as the finest ever, died in the wreckage.

Despite losing a core of rising stars on a freezing, foreign airfield only weeks before, the Manchester club rallied to play Real in the semi-final of the European competition. Madrid narrowly defeated the diminished ranks of its English opponent and went on to clinch the trophy, but the courage and tenacity of United raised the team to legendary status.

The Manchester-Madrid rivalry remains intense almost half a century on. In 2003, the most lucrative pawn in the chess game that is global soccer, David Beckham, changed teams, moving from United to Real for £25m ($42m). Beckham, Mr. Spice Girl, celebrity magazine superstar and the holder of a glittering array of winners’ medals, switched allegiances after a rumbling rift with his abrasive and unyielding manager Alex Ferguson.

But Beckham’s transfer was not only due to interpersonal tensions, his individual ambitions or even his own footballing abilities. Madrid’s owners wanted the player for what he could do on the soccer field but more so for the wonders he could conjure away from the pitch. So big a name was this agile, inventive midfielder that Real’s profile in the Far East (the fastest growing marketplace) would receive a massive boost overnight.

Replica shirt sales — a huge and profitable area of activity — would increase by tens of thousands and Madrid saw that it could now take the team on tour to China and Japan and challenge head-on the almost unrivalled status that United had enjoyed in those territories for many, many years. The Spanish club’s recent close season Asian tour was promoted primarily on the back of Beckham’s formidable profile, even if he is just one of a number of outstanding galacticos who grace the team’s line-up.

Yet the issues of economic supremacy have been some way from the forefront of United’s thinking in the last year or so. The club’s closer-to-home battles have drawn the greater portion of supporter attention and most media headlines in 2005, as the struggle to wrest financial control of the Manchester club has been the key story on both fans’ and commentators’ minds.

Malcolm Glazer, US billionaire and owner of American football franchise the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (winners of the Super Bowl under his leadership in 2003) had long expressed a desire to add a prestigious bauble like Manchester United to his portfolio. Rumours abounded that he would eventually make a decisive bid for a business worth around £700m ($1.2b).

In the spring, after several close calls and widespread resistance, Glazer pounced, amid much vitriol from the United faithful, to become the outright owner and proprietor of the most famous name in soccer. However, Glazer did not intend to assume a hands-on role in the day-to-day running of the business: within weeks of taking control he installed his three sons as his management representatives. To date there are few signs that their father will even show his face at his new company.

But what does Glazer’s conquest mean? What happens when a US businessman plunders a European sporting gem? What kind of new imperialism is this? In an age when national and international boundaries mean little — Rupert Murdoch owns media businesses in every corner of the planet and the internet plainly transcends older notions of the nation state — then why should we expect our soccer teams to be immune? Are they not now just tradable commodities as gold and coal, oil and timber, have been for centuries?

It is there I suppose where the problem lies. British soccer clubs are so closely identified with their home cities that they have been assumed to be local property, untouchable assets not for sale or surrender. So the people of Liverpool and Glasgow, Newcastle and Manchester believe they have a vested interest in the team that plays down the road. In 1967, the Scottish team Celtic incredibly carried off the European Cup with eleven Glaswegians, to underline those older links between people and place, the team and the community.

Such regional rapport has come under serious pressure in recent times. The Premier League clubs have stocked their shelves with overseas players from Africa and South America, Eastern Europe and even North America; the genuine local hero, homegrown and loyal to his town, is virtually unknown. The unbelievably rich have bought some of the most powerful teams; Roman Abramovich, a Russian and oil tycoon, snapped up Chelsea and, with his monetary muscle, transformed them into English champions in the season just gone, but English or British players are mostly absent from the mix, relegated to the lower tiers of the UK game

One side effect of the European Community is that there is no labour law to restrict Frenchmen or Spaniards, Dutch or Swedes, for instance, from moving freely to ply their trade in Britain. The UK provides major attractions — a powerful, high profile league paying salaries on par with the highest in Europe. Unfortunately, the displacement of indigenous footballers will have a definite impact on England’s World Cup aspirations as fewer qualified players from these islands will have the opportunity to perform at the highest level.

In a more perfect world, Englishmen would head to other corners of the EC in a model of reciprocity but the simple fact remains: for every Beckham who leaves for the continental mainland, perhaps one hundred or more overseas players head to the UK to participate in one of the most exciting and lucrative soccer competitions.

As for Malcolm Glazer’s intentions in Manchester, they are harder to fathom. While Abramovich has handed over £100m ($170m) for player purchases, Glazer seems intent on running a tighter ship. His borrowings to secure ownership of United have actually plunged the club into extraordinary debt. So where does he take his new plaything from this point forward? Many of the most committed fans, which fill the 70,000 seater Old Trafford stadium weekly, are deeply concerned. Mass protests outside the ground and inexcusable threats to the Glazer clan have accompanied the installation of new regime.

I doubt we will ever see soccer clubs in the UK regarded as mere businesses, commercial enterprises that can be shunted unceremoniously in the manner say, the baseball Dodgers were uprooted from Brooklyn and re-located to Los Angeles in 1957. But the age of Glazer suggests a new kind of investor in English soccer. It seems that he will rely on his creditable track record, financial acumen and fiscal astuteness to turn a healthy profit on what appears a speculative investment.

But as a new season begins, Glazer and his boys may discover that making money and this particular game have rarely gone hand in hand. Manchester United have become a more than viable concern as a result of a unique alchemy based on history, reputation, attainment and an amazingly loyal band of followers. If any of these ingredients are disregarded or become secondary to the matter of balance sheets, this intriguing American adventure may prove, quite quickly, to be more folly than jolly.

That said, perhaps the fans who have threatened to boycott United matches under Glazer’s ownership, will end up eating humble pie or, more likely, crying in their beer. The new proprietor has proved a stubborn and unyielding operator in Tampa Bay — ticket prices have risen even though the Buccaneers have gone in to significant decline — and he shows no signs of withdrawing from the fray. Maybe we have to accept that the nature of the playing field has changed and the big bucks controlling sport today count for much more than parochial loyalties and good old-fashioned sentiment.