FOX Soccer Exclusive
Derby becomes England's Super Bowl
The Battle for Manchester will conclude Monday night at Etihad Stadium. The stakes are enormous. The Barclays Premier League title will likely to be decided on City’s pitch. There have been a few other big, one-off title fights in England’s history, but this match represents a seismic shift in the Premier League.
The Manchester derby has become the biggest game in Britain; bigger than any London derby, bigger than United’s old feud with Liverpool, and far bigger than the Old Firm game with Rangers in now desperate twilight.
In fact, this derby is now the closest thing the Premier League has to a Super Bowl. It’s fierce and entertaining. There’s none of the nasty bile of Glasgow, and very little of what we see between Arsenal and Tottenham. In fact, these two institutions are very similar to the NFL’s New York Giants and New York Jets, with City only lacking a Rex Ryan to make the comparison complete. Even City’s forward Mario Balotelli’s conduct resembles Plaxico Burress’ self-destructive behavior.
Sir Alex Ferguson acknowledged as much this week that the rivalry with Liverpool — which he stoked on arrival at Old Trafford — carries much more heat. But with Liverpool some 30-odd points behind the Manchester giants, can anyone seriously think the biggest brawl in the sport is still between these two clubs?
What he didn’t acknowledge is how these two very wealthy clubs have left behind the knife-fights of the past and now engage in what might be called a “genteel brutality.”
While people in Manchester might disagree — especially those City fans who felt snubbed for years — the fact is, these teams and this game are unrecognizable from those of the golden age of English football. Both are foreign-owned, foreign-coached (Sir Alex is a Scot, after all) and laden with foreign talent. Their fans are increasingly global, and their merchandising power is a major part of their appeal. They are massively wealthy and serve as top-level entertainment.
Certainly, those in comfy seats have played a major part in this drama. The upper middle-class now trots to well-stocked suites to watch what used to be a working-class game. Here in the United Sates, there’s something decidedly hip about watching soccer. The media has rightfully praised the increasing sophistication of the game. A sport that Americans once argued was impossible to televise has proved instead to be increasingly magnetic.
What changed? Sure, money did, sure — but we did as well. The days of the terraces are long gone, and it’s a good thing. The game was once overwhelmingly male and inward-looking. The air of menace and malice prevailed around the grounds. There was even a time when you wouldn’t recommend a family to visit Stamford Bridge during game day. The game was an almost religious experience — but it was also a toxic one in many important ways.
Some of the essence of the game went away with this new slickness. But what came in its wake was a new generation of passionate fans from all walks of life. Last Sunday, saw a cheering section of women and be-turbaned Sikhs behind United’s bench. This was unimaginable in 1998. It’s just as remarkable that City are in this position at all.
In 1998, City became the first European title-winning side to be relegated to the third division. They had been mediocre for ages, their glory days in the 1960s and 70s long behind them. They had a loyal, but dispirited fan base that could only seethe as United kept racking up silverware. They looked like a team that would never return.
Today, it’s clear that City will contend for major trophies for years to come. Their turnaround, funded by some truly staggering dollar amounts, has built a team that can seriously fantasize for glory in England, Europe and across the globe.
Ferguson may once have sniffed at his “nouveau riche” and “noisy” neighbor, but the facts are plain: City’s a team that boasts world-class talent at every position. David Silva has tired this year, but he is still one of the best creative players in the game. Carlos Tevez may have gone on strike for months, but he still scores goals. Vincent Kompany has to be considered one of the game’s best defenders, while Joe Hart is England’s finest keeper. Even Balotelli, often playing the role of the villain, has on occasion been City’s finest voice.
United, on the other hand, are a side seemed to be entering in a decline: a remarkable thing to say about a team atop the table. But such are the exacting standards of the club under Ferguson. This year has seen his finest coaching job, coaxing a title-contending performance out of a side that often looks very average.
It is telling that United’s most valuable player is Paul Scholes, a man who came out of retirement mid-campaign. United’s problem is there are a lot of men like Scholes, carrying a lot of miles, and very few replacements behind them. Unlike City, United’s wealth has gone to pay down the debt with which the current owners bought the club. United fans are left to wonder what the state of the club might be without that yoke.
That, in itself, is perhaps the most telling detail. Today’s fan knows not only his team, but its balance sheet to boot. And no matter who wins Monday’s tilt — City are the favorites — the fact is this is a battle that will be fought with money just as much as talent. The English don’t want to admit it, but the NFL is already in their country in spirit.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.
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