Like many Manchester United supporters, Anita Parker's allegiance began with heartbreak. "I followed them from the Munich crash onward," says Parker, a lifetime United fan and president of the 10,000-member Greater Seattle Soccer League. "I thought: This is a team that lost everything."
In 1958, United's team plane crashed after a stop in Munich, killing eight players and 14 others and severely injuring coach Matt Busby. In what remains soccer's greatest comeback story, Busby rebuilt the team and 10 years later won his first European Cup. Busby was knighted, and his success in the face of adversity spawned a legend that still endures. On July 22, that legend will come to Seahawks Stadium to play an exhibition match as Manchester United squares off against Scottish League champion Celtic FC. Tickets go on sale Saturday, March 15.
"To see United live, here in Seattle, and to see them play Celtic is a dream come true," says Parker. "I would pay anything to see them."
Understanding Manchester United is tantamount to understanding the international appeal of soccer, or football, as it's known outside the United States. From the ashes of the Munich tragedy, Busby built the world's most popular team, a team Rupert Murdoch of Fox attempted to buy in 1998 for $1 billion. The Red Devils are to soccer what the Yankees are to baseball. "Manchester United has always played football the way people want to see football played," says United spokesperson Patrick Harverson. "The red shirts attacking in droves is one of the great sights in football."
During the 1960s, forward George Best became the first of United's pop-star players, earning distinction as "the fifth Beatle." "He was my hero," says Parker, who grew up in England and remembers watching United games on television. "I actually met him once, and he was sitting across the table from me and I was so dumbstruck, I couldn't even open my mouth."
Today that torch is borne by midfielder and tabloid-darling David Beckham. "In terms of visibility and the character of the game, I don't know if anyone is as big as David Beckham," says Seattle Sounders defender Scott Jenkins. "To see him herewhat a treat."
United's on-field success has made the team an international phenomenon, although English soccer supporters have not always been welcome in other countries. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, hooligans stampeded across Europe, leaving a swath of vandalism, unprovoked beatings, and asphyxiated victims. Strict legislation by the British government stemmed the violence during the 1990s. With United supporters converging on Seattle from Canada and the United Kingdom, the possibility of violence is minimized by a longstanding tradition of peaceful play between United and Celtic. "Our responsibility is to have safe events, and we will have sufficient security measures in place," says Seahawks Stadium general manager Jeff Klein. "People in the soccer community are very excited, and we think it'll be very successful."
If history is any lesson, Seattle is primed for the Red Devils' arrival. "In the '70s, when the Sounders were in their heyday, some of the best teams in the world came to Seattle," says the Sounders' general manager, Adrian Hanauer. Hanauer grew up going to Sounders games and remembers the routine sellouts, first at Memorial Stadium and later in the Kingdome when Pel駳 New York Cosmos came to town. "Back then soccer was on an even par with American football, basketball, baseball," says Hanauer. "It was getting an enormous amount of press and television coverage. The players were celebrities, like NBA guys are today."
American visibility of professional soccer declined during the 1980s and '90s. In 2002, as the U.S. World Cup team overachieved to a quarterfinal finish, many in the American press dismissed soccer for its perceived flaws: confusing rules, insufficient scoring, and the notion that any activity not involving the use of one's hands couldn't properly be called a sport. The world looked on, mildly amused.
"We have the same biases over here between football [soccer] and rugby," says Adrian Miller of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association. "The football fans say that rugby is too stop-start, with an overabundance of complicated rules. The rugby fans think only 'real men' play their sport and that football is for pansies. What you guys need is an open-minded media, and I hope that the players and their style of play will go a long way toward breaking some barriers."
In recent years, Seattle has become a model for importing international athletes, as evidenced by the warm embrace of Kazuhiro Sasaki and Ichiro Suzuki. How Seattle receives the Red Devils will go a long way toward determining the success of United's embassy to America.