Europe's football invasion
27 April ~ The most entertaining thing about big European teams coming to play friendly matches in the US is the breathless press release that paves the way for yet another brand-inspired dash for the dollar. Man City, due to play in New York in July, are paraded as a club "now on the brink of their best-ever placing in the Premier League era". Tottenham, due for the same tournament, are touted as featuring "in the top 15 of the Deloitte Football Money League, which ranks football clubs by revenue generated from football operations". As if that wasn't enough, their 2008 League Cup meant that "Spurs achieved the feat of winning a trophy in each of the last six decades". Oh my god, open the turnstiles now!
This coming summer will see the usual numbers of mainly English and Italian teams either tagging on games at the end of their long domestic seasons, or visiting the US in the name of pre-season preparation. AC Milan come to DC United and the Chicago Fire in May, and is "committed to fielding all of their star players... not obligated to World Cup duties". The Italian club's director, Umberto Gandini, can barely suppress his excitement at coming to Chicago, dutifully pointing out that "the Fire have a passionate fan base and a very warm atmosphere at their matches, and I am sure that our players will be ready to be part of an entertaining event". This could be football's slogan when it succumbs to the final stages of Americanisation: It's not a game, dude, it's an Event.
HIndeed, the group organising the World Series of Football (Man City and Tottenham's tournament in New York) boasts of having "an unparalleled reputation for high-quality competition, efficiency of organisation and ambience of presentation" (my italics). Sam Kennedy of the Fenway Sports Group, a body negotiating to stage Celtic playing Rangers at a baseball stadium in Boston this July, told the Boston Globe: "We wouldn't be interested in just any soccer match or event. When we go after games, we are focused on the blue-chip nature of events." Ooh, be careful with your colour choice there, Sam. You might put off the doubtless loyal and passionate millions ("loyal" and "passionate" being the only two words that marketing drones anywhere can find for football fans) that make up the huge Celtic supporter base in the Massachusetts region.
Apparently you can barely move for lovers of European football in that part of the New World. Benfica are coming to play the New England Revolution next month to reward the Portuguese side's "passionate and substantial following in the north-east region", according to New England's vice president of business development, Craig Tornberg, who also anticipates a "fantastic match". This will be helped by Benfica's "unique connection with the Revolution". Which is? "Bronzed statues of Eusébio... sit outside both Gillette Stadium and Benfica's Estádio da Luz." Although watching a bronze statue of Eusébio could turn out to be more captivating than watching one of Steve Nicol's famously dour line-ups take on a demob happy Benfica on their end-of-season beano.
All these desperate and absurd attempts to sell what will inevitably be hollow, half-hearted performances by the European teams beg the question of who these games are aimed at. There are few US-based fans looking for an allegiance to foreign teams that haven't already been seduced by watching Barcelona, Man Utd, Real Madrid and Arsenal, either on previous US tours or on TV in games that actually matter. The MLS hosts, meanwhile, come across as young, fresh-faced cousins keen to have their names associated with the big boys while pretending they can compete (Chicago noted that the last time they played Milan, the visitors "edged" the tie 3-1). And there's always the risk their own fans will decide they prefer the look of the touring exhibitionists and become all loyal and passionate about a team located 4,000 miles away instead.
There are all kinds of football fans in the US – those who love MLS, those who only watch European football and those who are mad about the national team. Many not only fall into all three categories, but are heavily into one or more of the other major league sports. Millions more are too busy playing, organising and coaching youth football to even have the spare time to catch more than the odd professional game. The annual tours by major Euro-teams suggest they're stuck in the 1980s, in the condescending mindset that thinks the US is still an unconquered footballing backwater, and that there's an infinity of surplus entertainment dollars to be sucked out of the country. It's true that, on top of those attending because the matches are included in their season-ticket packages, there will be a number of dupes who pay to watch creaking veterans like Ronaldinho and Filippo Inzaghi trot out for Milan next month and that may be the only live game they attend all year. But the vast majority can no longer be fooled. Everyone knows the game in the US is growing at its own steady pace and that it can no longer be forced forwards by gimmickry. Ian Plenderleith
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