"Every kid you see on the street here with a football wants to play in an FA Cup final at Wembley," says Kasey Keller, the American goalkeeper for the south London club Millwall. "That is the pinnacle. The FA Cup final is the World Series, the Super Bowl and the NBA Finals combined. That's it. There is nothing more."
Ten-year-olds playing two-a-sides in West London—their "goal" a closed gate at the Queens Park Rangers' ground—all claim to be Ranger striker Les Ferdinand, with a spot in the final on the line. "Goal!" shrieks a lad in the blue-and-white hoop stripes of QPR. "Ferdinand! Two-nil! Rangers are in the Cup final against...against...Man United!"
"No," says the goalkeeper. "They're bad luck. Villa."
"Against Aston Villa!"
In real life, mighty Manchester United eliminated QPR on its way to this year's Cup final. When the Reds kicked off against Everton three weeks ago, they were watched in 70 countries, by 500 million people, many of whom had been backing Man United since the '58 Cup final. That year United reached Wembley only three months after the team's plane crashed on takeoff in Munich, killing eight players and 15 other passengers. United lost the Cup to Bolton but won the world's everlasting allegiance.
"I've had conversations about Man United in the Bolivian Andes," says novelist and soccer writer Pete Davies, whose acclaimed account of the English team in the '90 World Cup, All Played Out, has been published in...Japanese. "There is a team in Namibia called Liverpool. There is a team in Lesotho called Arsenal. When Man United won their first league title in 26 years [in 1993], BBC Radio reported the celebration live from a supporters' club in Bondi Beach, Australia."
In soccer England still has an empire free of sunsets. John Harkes, a U.S. midfielder and five-year English League veteran who played for Sheffield Wednesday in the '93 FA Cup final, reads the postmarks on four months of fan mail backlogged in his Derbyshire home. "Germany, Hungary, Thailand, Hong Kong..." he begins. "I try to respond immediately, but...."
But it's impossible to keep up, even for one used to the VCR-on-scan pace of soccer as played in the British Isles. "All-out attacking...up-tempo...fast-break" is how Man United fan Hakeem Olajuwon has described the English League game. But this only begins to account for its planetary appeal, only begins to explain why....
Why, when Fidel Castro was touring French vineyards in March, he asked to attend Arsenal's match at nearby Auxerre in the quarterfinals of the European Cup-Winners Cup, a tournament among domestic cup champions from the previous season. (El comandante let slip that he has long been a Gooner, as Gunner fans are globally known.)
Why, when Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn returned to Russia under tight security in 1994, after 20 years in political and football exile, his Alaska Air ticket bore the pseudonym MR. R. GIGGS.