Trundling along Sir Matt Busby Way, the city of Manchester, England, at my back, I pause for a moment on a dirty cobblestone bridge to take in the epicenter of the sports world.
Admittedly, upon arrival I'm not in the clearest state of mind: I've crossed an ocean, several time zones, Piccadilly traffic and a good portion of England to get here. So at first glance my reaction to Old Trafford is, I must say, embarrassingly and typically American. As a structure, it does not immediately impress. Red brick. A glass facade. Twisted erector-set style steel beams painted white. The stadium is cradled by train tracks on one side and a dead canal on the other. Just up the road are the classic English pubs and take-away chip shops that are synonymous with soccer.
The East side of the stadium is one of the few things that actually stands out, but only because it's painted red and pewter -- the exact colors of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Other than that, Old Trafford looks more like Reliant Stadium's little brother and not the sacred ground of über soccer team Manchester United or the center of what has become a truly global sports story.
It's raining, of course, and there are giant construction cranes on site working on the latest expansion to the stadium. By 2007, Old Trafford will seat 76,000. But other than that, there are no visual clues that standing before you is the home of the world's largest and most prestigious sports team.
Just as I'm writing down the words, Malcolm Glazer paid $1.47 billion for this? a family of six walks by and lines up at the box office for stadium tour tickets. The dad has two cameras dangling around his neck. The kids are all dressed in Man U's red home kits. They are of Pakistani decent. The group of women behind them is from Dublin. Behind them, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong and then, I swear, a family from Birmingham, England, cued up next to a family from Birmingham, Ala.
In all there are eight countries represented in my stadium tour group. Half the group is female and nearly every race and continent on the planet is accounted for. There is a grandfather with us as well as a 12-week-old baby.
I click my pen and quickly scratch out my previous observation. A better question would be: Does Malcolm Glazer understand what he just paid $1.5 billion for?
For Manchester United's worldwide fan base of 75 million, Old Trafford is like soccer Disneyland. Each year nearly a quarter-million fans pay nine quid for a look at the team's museum and pitch. Today's a slow day, I'm told. Most people are on holiday. The fixtures for next season don't come out for a few more weeks. But in August, yikes, they'll be booking 42 tours a day and the line will be out to the canal.
It's amazing, really. Today we won't get to see a goal scored, or a single pass. There are no tour cameos from players or coaches. What you do get to experience on this tour, however, is a sense of how sports can shrink the world right before your very eyes.
And ears. While waiting for our tour guide to show up, I slipped into the men's room inside the Red Café where the club has historic highlights piped in from the last, oh, 127 years. "Oh yes indeed," said the speaker over the urinal, " and The Treble looms vast!" The Treble is, of course, in reference to the three trophies this team won in 1999 (think: soccer grand slam, only bigger). An accomplishment second only to Man U's triumphant win in the 1967 European Cup. Man U was the first English team to win the Euro Cup and it did so nine years after eight players -- "The Young Kings of British Soccer" -- were killed in a plane wreck in Munich.
There is an entire wing to the team's museum dedicated to that crash. And a stark old-fashioned black and white clock marked simply "Munich" looms outside the stadium. Yet it is still hard for me to put into words what that tragedy and the team's comeback means over here. Maybe this will do it: More than once I've heard the Munich crash compared -- with a straight face -- with the JFK assassination.
This is just one of those areas, I'm afraid, where no matter how much time or energy you invest, it's difficult to understand the cultural gap between our two countries and our two most beloved brands of football. Over time that could change. It already has to some extent, it's just that neither group of fans wants to admit just how frighteningly similar we are.
It's no coincidence that Nick Hornby's book "Fever Pitch," about the suffering that is central to being a proper soccer fan, could be so seamlessly recreated as a movie about the Red Sox. In the wake of the Glazer takeover, it was eerie to see how lifelong Man U fans were wearing the exact same stunned, pale, death mask that Cleveland Browns fans displayed after Art Modell moved what they once thought was their team to Baltimore. The recent news that Glazer now owns 98 percent of the club and proposed boycotts of the "Trailer Park Tycoon" have had almost no effect on ticket or merchandise sales. But it has only deepened the fans' "dog's dinner" malaise and their simmering anti-American sentiment.
I feel for the true, local Man U fans, the ones who built this club into a world-wide phenomenon only to be discarded by the very monster they helped create. But at the same time you just want to say to them, Uh, hey fellas, welcome to the real world. Football fans, both here and abroad, lead with their hearts. And the people who control the sports they love lead with their wallets. That incongruity is not specific to America or Malcolm Glazer. One trip around Old Trafford proves it's nothing new to the UK or soccer, either. How it seems to have snuck up on the world's most passionate and informed fan base is beyond me.
Sadly, the crass concept of sports as big business is universal.
In a storefront window, just up the street from Old Trafford, there is a poster from one of the recent anti-Glazer NOT FOR SALE marches. Not For Sale? Behind that poster, inside the store, you can purchase just about anything imaginable -- frisbees, lighters, scarves, boxers, ashtrays -- emblazoned with the Manchester United logo or a player's likeness. Not for sale? The jerseys here make it look like the team plays for Vodafone, not Manchester. When you log on to the team's Web site, the first thing that pops up is an ad for a low-rate mortgage.
In 1994, a decade after the Chicago Bears first hit the charts, Man U went platinum with a little ditty called: "Come on You Reds." Old Trafford already has a Fan Zone (but no pirate ship yet), 179 luxury suites, its own TV channel, its own police station with three cells, and -- holy Gordon Gekko! -- a megastore under one entire wing of the stadium. Inside, for a measly 100 pounds, you can buy a life-sized hologram of Eric Cantona's foot or a crystal tankard engraved with Busby's sacred likeness. For a few less quid you can take home a Red Army Budweiser beer cooler or a doll of Roy Keane.
Listen, I'm not saying fans shouldn't be skeptical of the Glazers or their debt-heavy purchase, especially in a salary cap-free league where spending is directly related to winning. In fact, one of Europe's premier sports economists told me the Glazers will have to pull off something "revolutionary" just to meet their bank notes in the first three years. The Glazers' passionately dispassionate approach to the sports teams they own hardly sets fans at ease, either. But the notion that Man U fans somehow care more about their sport, or have suffered to the point they are entitled to start riots and chant "The Glazers are gonna die" is just, well, rubbish.
I know about a million Browns fans who would trade places with you dudes faster than you could say, "Champagne Supernova."
When our tour guide, Ian, first takes us through the underbelly of the stadium, the look and feel is like any of a 100 sports arenas or frat-house basements I've been in: Rubber floors, low ceilings, old yellowing brick, the stench of spilled beer and concession stands where they toss out 2.5 tons of meat pies on game day. There is a small framed poster on the wall that lists, in tiny print, the 18 ground regulations for fans. And in an effort to cut down on bomb threats, there are no waste bins inside the stadium.
When we emerge facing the north side of the stands, where 25,000 seats on a terrace that stretches 168 feet into the air spell out "Manchester United," folks start snapping pictures like it was Mount Rushmore. The sign below that tells you to "please keep off the pitch" is written in five different languages.
During the pause in the tour I wander up to Ian and introduce myself. He's wearing a dignified red sport coat with the team's crest on the lapel. He's a sharp, friendly chap. He has rectangular spectacles, a gray buzzcut and a tendency to end nearly every sentence with "so you can see where we're going with that then, eh?"
I've been sent here to explore the vast differences in our countries, our sports fans and our football, but Ian only adds to my growing case of stateside déjà-vu. He's never heard of me, the FlemFile or ESPN.
Instead, he points proudly to the luxury suites. There's a 10-year waiting list, he says, and some go for as much as 47,000 pounds a year. (This means nothing to me. Not because I don't care, but because I'm an English major and cannot do the math.) "You can see why Malcolm Glazer wanted it, eh?" he says. "It's money all the way."
Ian takes us through the locker room, a small, square, nondescript room that has all the comforts of a bomb shelter. Most NFL players have walk-in closets bigger than Man U's locker room. The floor is gray. The players sit on benches. There are no lockers, or stalls or La-Z-Boy chairs, just red plastic hooks on the wall. Everyone is equal in here. And everyone sits facing center, forced to look each other in the eye.
Next door, the players' lounge is covered with distinguished black and white photos of team captains. The wall that contains the names of Man U players who have also represented their own homelands in international play (including New Jersey native and backup goalkeeper Tim Howard) is marked off by red velvet ropes. To get to the pitch from here, players can travel down a tunnel that is 95 years old and survived repeated bombings during the war.
Our final stop takes us down another tunnel that's adorned on either side by marble plaques commemorating the two owners -- John Henry Davis in 1902 and James Gibson in 1931 -- who pulled Man U out of bankruptcy and to the pinnacle of the sports world.
It is made quite clear these men, along with Matt Busby and his "Babes," a handful of mancunian players and current coach Sir Alex Ferguson, are considered royalty. Everyone pauses in silence to read the plaques. It feels, for a moment, as if I've been transported back to Westminster Abbey. And for the first time I think I'm finally beginning to experience the proper amount of gravitas for this team and this stadium and what this sport means to this country.
Maybe things are really different over here, I think. Maybe I had it all wrong. Maybe all sports fans and sports owners are not the same. Maybe it is a big deal that an American tycoon now owns Manchester United. Maybe we're not all the same. Maybe some teams should be above the almighty dollar.
Still lingering in silence under the plaque, the stadium is so quiet you can hear the wind leaking through a nearby steel gate.
And then, at that very moment, back down the hall, deep inside the stadium, I see the door to the makeshift chapel that's been set up so loyal Manchester United fans can exchange their sacred vows of marriage without having to miss one second of the action on the pitch.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow," a father's emotional journey from the death of his son to the birth of his daughter, will be published in 2005 by Baywood. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.