Manchester United / Union

Goodbye Plasticity!

A True Fan

The reaction is always the same – “of course you are” or “figures” or “aren’t all Yanks?”. It’s not easy being an American Red Devil. Well, some would argue it’s too easy.

Manchester United are arguably the world’s largest soccer team, and, inarguably the de facto European team for American fans. They have won eighteen domestic league titles and three European Cups. They have been home to marquee names such as Best, Charlton, Cantona, Giggs, Keane, and Beckham. They boast the world’s highest turnover and are the most valuable franchise in all of sports. So, I can’t blame you if you snicker. I won’t fault you if you sneer. I can’t say I wouldn’t hate me too. It would be difficult not to group me in the prawn sandwich brigade or label me plastic. After all, I am a frontrunner.

When I started following English football in the early 90s, there was one team to support- United. When my great-grandmother, a Londoner, sent me footy magazines as gifts, I eagerly lapped up stories of Giggs, Ince, Cantona, Cole. The pull-out posters plastered on my wall were all of United players. Of course, with U.S. television coverage of international club soccer being limited to Spanish language channels, live viewing of my heroes was next to impossible. I was limited to the three month-old recaps in my transcontinental footy rags. I’ll admit it, I went with the winners.

And despite my efforts to controvert the perceived plasticity (I’ve seen United play in the flesh, both on American soil and at the Theater of Dreams), I’ve been met with the same skepticism. Why oh why couldn’t I just support Reading (like my PSP colleague) or Plymouth or Torquay or Dag & Red or Cambridge United? I’d have so much street cred! Instead I get the smirks. I get the rolling eyes. I get the throat clears. Eh-hem, oh United, real original!

Well come March 25th, I’ll be plastic no more…

MLS First Kick 2010 is not merely the beginning of a new era of Philadelphia fandom or the start of the league’s 16th franchise. No, Philadelphia Union away to Seattle Sounders is the day I, and thousands like me, finally have a vested interest in a soccer team.

I was born in Philadelphia. I live in Philadelphia. I support Philadelphia Union. It has a nice ring to it.

Ok, so the naysayers will point out that this team plays in Chester and not Philadelphia. But the mere fact that I can get in my car and drive 15 miles to see the team I support play is enough for me. Prior to March 25th, it’s a grand and an 8 hour flight.

Simon Kuper, in his superb Soccernomics, explains that most soccer fans are polygamists. In other words, they support more than one club. In fact, as he points out, some are serial supporters- going from one club to the next. In Europe and South America, the motto is, “you can change your wife, but you can’t change your club”. In the U.S., Asia, Africa, and elsewhere, it’s easier said than done. Kuper categorizes fans into two groups:  Hornby-types (for Nick Hornby, acclaimed author and die-hard Arsenal fan) and casual-types (the kind that support clubs based on winning percentages or club colors). Switching allegiance to a Hornby-type is out of the question. Girlfriends come and go. Jobs are started and ended. But a club is for life.

Regardless of me supporting Manchester United for nearly 20 years, can I claim authenticity? The famous Catalan motto of F.C. Barcelona is “mes que un club” or “more than a club” is the best way to sum up the phenomenon of the football supporter. A club isn’t about the home kit or the number of trophies in a case. A club is about identity. Who you support defines who you are. Your team is a reflection of your cultural, and oftentimes, socioeconomic make-up (see under Southend United Shrimpers).

At the risk of being misogynistic, it’s hard not to use the husband-wife metaphor here. I wouldn’t dare cheat on my wife. Sure, Arsenal always keep it on the carpet, and Barca play the prettiest stuff out there but switching allegiances never once crossed my mind. Until now. Come March 25th, I’m getting remarried. And it feels great. It feels like home.

11 Comments

  1. Feel free to share your own stories. Maybe you became a Chelsea fan after the Special One arrived in town or you just latched onto Barca after they went 6 for 6 last year. Or maybe you were hooked on United after ’99. Let me know.

    • Luis Morinigo says:

      Club Olimpia (Paraguay)

      Founded in 1902

      3 times winners of Copa Libertadores (’79, ’90,’02)

      World Champion winnder of intercontinental cup ’79

      Motto: GH1S (Grande Hay Uno Solo)

      My true love and pride – way above the national team, but I am also a DC United fan because I believe in the MLS and my home town.

      Great article.

  2. Ed Farnsworth says:

    I became a Reading fan after watching their 3-2 comeback win against Middlesborough on the opening day of their first year in the Premiership. I had just subscribed to FSC following the 2006 World Cup and, while I had seen replays of Premiership matches from the previous season, the Reading match was the first Premiership match that I saw that was current.

    I became a Reading supporter because I liked their style of play, I liked their manager, their owner seemed a decent person, a guy from Philly played on the team and, most importantly, I liked their story. (That I have always been partial to hoops also helped.) As a Philadelphian, their history of struggle very much appealed to me. As a newcomer to regular coverage to the Premiership, Reading simply clicked with me. I spent a lot of time and money learning about the team – I think it safe to say that I have the largest library of Reading related books in America – and, after that incredible first season in the Premiership, I have been, in more ways than one, paying for it ever since.

    That said, I am always amazed at how guilty American fans of Big Four English teams often seem to feel about their support, that so many feel the need to explain why they support the team they do. I measure a supporter by what they know about a team, not just who they support. You clearly know and love your team deeply. Given the fact that we live in a country where soccer coverage is only beginning to be widely available, its not surprising that newer fans support teams that are successful or glamorous. After all, everyone has a first love. Hopefully we can all agree that taking – and giving – shit for who you support just goes with being a fan of the game.

    I too am over the moon about the upcoming Union debut and I am ecstatic that, for the first time since the Fury folded in 1980, I’ll have a hometown team to follow and support. But my support of the Union won’t diminish my support for Reading any more than my support of Reading diminishes my support for Celtic or St. Pauli or Boca Juniors or whoever. I’m not switching allegiances, I’m gaining one, which, as far as I’m concerned, will only increase my love of the game. With so much soccer to love, why limit one’s passion to just one team?

  3. Ed, while you’re amazed at how guilty American fans of the Big Four feel, I fall into that crowd like Ryan. I’m quintuply embarrassed because David Beckham was the reason I started liking Man U. Can you get any more cliche at this point?

    In my defense, I was 14 and it was 1994, so in the pre-treble years. I loved soccer but didn’t quite understand the international scene yet — I wanted to pick teams but didn’t know any of the players.

    So when 19-year-old David Beckham was playing and making a name for himself (before he temporarily tarnished that name with the red card), I decided I would follow whatever team that kid played for. Little did I know they had just won the double.

    But I went Hornby-style — that was the team I picked, more or less randomly, so that was the team I stuck with. And I remain a Man U fan, from back in the old Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes days through to the, well, Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes days.

    The strange thing, though, is I didn’t have a similar relationship with the Italian team I picked, Fiorentina. My family is from Cosenza, across from Sicily, but Cosenza is routinely below Serie B, making them hard to follow. I liked Gabriel Batistuta and thus picked Fiorentina, but found them hard to follow and after a couple years lost focus. I still think of them as my team but I have less connection than to Man U. Funny how that works.

    Anyway, I’m excited to have the Union to root for, which will feel more legit. And the funny part is that if I have kids and pass on a love for Man U, it’ll be legit because their dad supported them. Even if I feel the American football guilt.

  4. Arrrsenal, Arrrrrrsenal, ARRRRRSENAL!!!

    I’m a gooner ’til I die, as they say, and proud of it, but I have to say I, like, matty, found the Arsenal mostly by accident. Like many Americans without cable growing up, I had little exposure to foreign teams. Soccer was about playing, not watching. Then, my hometown got an A-League team, the Rochester Rhinos, and there was a team to follow, but it wasn’t until college–with it’s always-on broadband internet–that I was really able to follow a team (any team) closely.

    My roommate and best friend was a Chelsea fan (from the pre-Mourinho days), and ESPNSoccernet was the biggest outlet of news, so I went looking for an EPL team to follow. In the first week of the 2001-2002 season, I had a gander at the league table. No games had been played, so who was top? The one and only Arsenal. The only thing I knew was that I couldn’t choose Chelsea as my team, and I refused to follow Man U (sorry, what I did know about the EPL was that Manchester was essentially the Yankees of world football, and rooting for them was out of the question), so I chose the first team, alphabetically, the team with the cool, martial name. It was literally that simple.

    I was lucky. Not only were Arsenal one of the best teams in the league–they would go on to win the EPL that season and, until Abramovich’s arrival, were really Manchester’s only challengers–but they played the prettiest football, had the smart, cerebral coach (and patrician, old-fashioned, honorable ownership), and had the best player–Thierry Henry. Henry was then and is now my favorite player of all time, and the football Arsenal play is the beautiful game. I’d never choose another team, not in a million years. I love them even for their flaws–Wenger’s stubbornness, the team’s inferiority complex, the inability to play anything other than pretty football, the huge collection of players made of glass–what more could you ask for?

    I’m with Ed when it comes to the Union. I’m stoked to have a local team to call my own, and it’s special to be able to be there at the beginning–for some Arsenal fans, I’ll never be a true supporter of the Gunners because I didn’t grow up in Islington, and that’s sad–that’s why I bought season tickets, and I’ll be yelling my head off like everyone else when they run out in blue and gold, and I’ll follow MLS like I never have before. That said, the Union will never be first in my heart. Woolwich Arsenal are the blue-collar factory team for me.

  5. Geez, guys. I just became an Everton fan two months ago. 😉

  6. I’m an Arsenal Fan and relatively ‘new’ to the sport… really 2006 WC brought me into the world of international football and T. Henry… then playing fifa on the playstation taught me more about the clubs and key players… and now i’m hooked…i even now play every week indoors and love it… starting playing at 39yrs old… lol

    its too easy to be a fan of the billionaire owned teams… can’t do it. man u in debt and run poorly (look at the fan rebellion going on) Chelsea is operating at an impossible $$ level (not sustainable) Man City (don’t need to say anything)… i’m for accountability and sustainability for the long term

    watch 3-4 games every weekend… so happy ESPN is showing the games in HD (a huge breakthrough for those of us that can’t afford to visit the ‘homeland’).

    I go to almost every Intl. Friendly every summer (cheaper than flying to europe) and started watching Redbulls games before Union had a team so kinda have more of a connection with the Redbulls (Henry helps too)… i’m coming around slowly to the Union (love the stadium!) i filmed several Intl. Friendlys this summer much to the dissapointment of security at the stadiums… but if you want to see some decent footage of; Intermilan, Man. City, Tottenham, and others check out my youtube page; http://www.youtube.com/lonestarsound415

    where can i find fellow Arsenal Supporters to watch games?? i’m on twitter @unityboomshots and i watch games with my fellow Gooners all over the world with twitter for now…

  7. Alison Pine says:

    I am a Man U fan bc my older brother is… Ryan – does that make me legit? 🙂

  8. Linda Pine says:

    I am just a Ryan Pine fan. 🙂

  9. hello
    That’s a good post.Thanks for sharing.

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