Who is 'England's team'?
November, 21, 2012
By Roger Bennett | ESPN The Magazine
Matthew Peters/Man Utd/Getty ImagesIf Manchester United are England's answer to the Dallas Cowboys, does that make Wayne Rooney Tony Romo?To dare to anoint one Premier League club “England’s Team” in the way the Dallas Cowboys are hailed as “America's Team” is a perilous task.
Like decoding which NBA team is the “most Cockney” or determining the MLB franchise that best resembles “Stoke City on a rainy Tuesday night,” it is a challenge that demands a tricky bit of cultural translation.
The assignment is further complicated by the fact that, while English football has become a global foot race in which the country's elite clubs vie with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich for the hearts and mind of football fans in China, India and the Middle East, the moniker “England’s Team” suggests filtering out that global surge as background noise to focus purely on clubs’ domestic brands.
While Manchester United, the worldwide juggernaut, lay claim to a bloated global fanbase of 659 million supporters, even they admit just 1 percent of those supporters live in England.
This relatively meager level of national support is a direct result of a conflicting approach to team density.
While the NFL relies on a tiny cast to captive a massive landmass, the English landscape is comparatively littered with an abundance of choices.
Back in 1979, when the term “America’s Team” was coined, just 28 NFL squads took to the field.
In stark contrast, English soccer jams 92 league clubs into an area that is less than one fifth the size of Texas.
While NFL fans in Montana live hundreds of miles from their nearest franchise, freeing them up to pick and choose a rooting interest, the Premier League thrives on an intense localism, real and imagined.
In addition, England already has a natural team. Creatively enough, it is called “England" -- the national team that won the World Cup in 1966 and has boasted such legends as Billy Wright, Bobby Moore and Kevin Keegan.
But England’s fortunes have declined just as the Premier League’s standing has been fortified. Club football is now very much in the ascendancy.
To face up to the challenge of naming England’s Team requires the application of strict constructionism. We will use the definition of “America’s Team” as it was authentically applied in 1979, avoiding the comparison of the faltering present-day Cowboys for whom glory is a fading memory, worn like a bald man with a comb-over.
Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty ImagesIn protest, some United fans only attend away matches.
The original term was formulated by a young NFL Films producer, Bob Ryan, who wanted to conjure a phrase that captured the popularity, success and national profile the Dallas franchise achieved above all others.
In an interview with NFL Films, Ryan revealed his creative catalyst was the number of Cowboys fans he spotted supporting the team, even at road games: “I saw all these fans in away stadiums. How can I use that? Why don't we call them 'America's Team'?”
This definition makes for a challenging point of departure. Unlike NFL fan bases, every Premier League football team can boast a hard-core following of supporters who travel to games both at home and on the road.
Indeed, many Manchester United fans have become so disillusioned with the profits-first ownership of the American Glazer family that they only watch their United play at away games to deprive their team owners of ticket revenue.
Road support alone is a piece of misdirection as it suggests Newcastle and Liverpool could battle for the moniker. Their traveling armies continually sell out their club’s away-game ticket allocations and the teams perpetually top studies identifying the best away fan bases.
Yet their lack of combined success undermines the claim. Proud as they are, bereft of present-day glory, both clubs resemble a pair of Shih Tzus who act like they are big dogs.
Thankfully, Ryan supplies a series of supplementary reasons that prove more useful for the task at hand:
• 1. The Cowboys’ media profile made the moniker fit. The team was “on national television so often, their faces are as popular as presidents and movie stars.”
• 2. The claim was reinforced by the presence of the “league’s most popular player Roger Staubach who was a star that kind of symbolized America.”
• 3. The team catalyzed extreme emotions from football fans. As Daryl "Moose" Johnston admitted in the NFL film, “People hated us or loved us, but you had an opinion.”
• 4. Success was at the core of the brand. “If you're not successful, America's team doesn't fit. America doesn't want that team that's losing,” journalist Mickey Spagnola proclaimed.
If success is a prerequisite, two petrodollar-fueled teams can be eliminated from the running at the outset.
Mark Runnacles/Getty ImagesHolt is a household name ... in his own household.
Manchester City and Chelsea may have mastered the hating part of the equation, but the “widespread love” requirement needs a lot of work.
The influx of cash that has undergird both teams’ recent success has earned them few neutral admirers.
City will have to settle for being Abu Dhabi’s Team; and Chelsea, Russia’s.
Norwich City could make a creative case. The Canaries squad contains 17 English players on its roster, five ahead of its nearest competitors, Stoke and Southampton.
Yet even the most diehard Norwich fan would have trouble making the argument with a straight face that podgy striker Grant Holt is the league’s most popular player.
That man, as judged by replica jersey sales, is Wayne Rooney.
The clean-cut Staubach was perceived as a symbol of America in his day. There are few English players who better resemble the fading status of contemporary Britain than the consistently underperforming, tabloid-bruised Manchester United striker.
United’s 19 league titles make them both the most successful and richest club in England -- two traits that allow them to tick the boxes of “contemporary success” and “catalyzer of mixed emotions.”
The club was recently determined to be “Britain’s most hated company,” outstripping even McDonald's and Starbucks in the vitriol it generates.
Yet the statistic that tips the title of “England’s Team” toward the Old Trafford club emerges from this recent study, which reveals United’s status as the Premier League club with the fewest local fans.
Ian Kington/AFP/Getty ImagesChelsea are less popular in London, their home city, than United.
Just 9 percent of United’s support hails from the same zip code as the team’s stadium, and the Mancunians are popular enough to be the third best supported team in London, ahead of local clubs Chelsea, West Ham and Fulham.
There is a kicker. While United’s supporters and owners may revel in the traits that make them “England’s Team,” most English soccer fans deem those same traits as pejoratives.
While Americans adore powerhouses, victory and bandwagons, the English have always been more circumspect, harboring a soft spot for the noble failure and humility of an underdog.
During a lull in the action at most Premier League games, United fans will often be goaded by opposing supporters who chant, “We support our local team.”
For some, silverware, status and a stock price on the NYSE cannot trump the authenticity and tradition afforded by community bona fides.