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In the 18th century, pirates affected scowls and howls and rude parrots to strike terror in the hearts of their victims. Here in the 21st century, the sight of a Buccaneer named Malcolm Glazer--the bespectacled, reclusive, 76-year-old owner of the NFL franchise from Tampa Bay--is having a similar effect on English soccer fans. Earlier this month the American real estate tycoon paid $1.47 billion for a 75% interest in Manchester United, the 127-year-old British institution that commands as much worldwide recognition and far more respect than the monarchy. The club has won the Premiership, the country's top division, eight times since 1992 and snagged the European Champions League trophy in 1999. To the Red Devils' faithful around the world, Glazer is no less a pirate than Blackbeard.
Suddenly, and without saying a word in public about his motives or plans, the owner of the 2003 Super Bowl champs is the most reviled sports figure in Western Civilization. The British press, showing characteristic restraint, has described Glazer as "rapacious," "greedy" and "ruthless"; one daily even ridiculed Glazer's "penchant for wearing his trousers pulled up to his armpits."
Sportswriters presume the man who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., has no feel for Red Devils history--and no idea who manager Alex Ferguson is. "Let me reassure you, I know all about Fergie's achievements," a columnist for The Guardian had Glazer telling his players. "I've seen her Weight Watchers ads on TV and read about her divorce from Prince Charles."
At the FA Cup final between Man U and Arsenal in Cardiff, Wales, last Saturday, Red Devils supporters descended on Millennium Stadium in black, as if dressed for a funeral. They have burned Glazer in effigy, compared him with Hitler, issued death threats to his family, vowed to flood the market with forged tickets and urged a boycott of matches, merchandise and sponsors. Yes, they take their football seriously in the U.K., and anti-Americanism is as easy to find in Europe as odd-looking sockets--but this is different. It's not newcomers that Man U fans fear as much as new-doers. They want to hold at bay the men in suits who will change their sporting culture.
In their new book National Pastime: How Americans Play Baseball and the Rest of the World Plays Soccer, economics professors Stefan Szymanski and Andrew Zimbalist note that until about 15 years ago, European soccer teams were generally operated as rich men's playthings: Owners gave no more thought to turning a profit than to pulling on a uniform and taking to the pitch. But in the 1990s, when European TV was deregulated and broadcast money began flooding in (English soccer revenue has exploded from $200 million to more than $3 billion annually over the last decade), soccer became a business. Bean counters have blossomed; ticket prices have crept up. Reds supporters fear Glazer--who raised the cash for his bid by borrowing $490 million against the assets of the debt-free club--will accelerate that trend. They see him selling off stars instead of enriching the roster. They see him peddling the naming rights of Old Trafford stadium to a corporate sponsor (Rose's Lime Juice Park?). They see him adding luxury boxes and finishing the job (already well under way, thanks to apparel stores and sponsor deals with Vodafone and Nike) of turning their club into a brand.
Of course Glazer could prove to be as lovable as the current darling of the English game, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, 38. The Russian oil billionaire is beloved because he treats the Blues as a hobby, pouring $400 million into the franchise that he acquired in 2003. He also bought success--the perennial doormat just won its first Premiership title in 50 years.
Yet if Glazer's past is any indication, Red Devils fans have reason to be worried. He made part of his fortune from trailer parks in upstate New York, pinching inhabitants with monthly surcharges for pets and even kids. After buying the Bucs for $192 million in 1995, he made the classic Owner's Threat of promising to move the team to another city if he didn't get a new stadium. He got it, with taxpayers footing most of the $168 million bill.
Once before, in 1998, Man U fans fought off a takeover that time by Aussie billionaire Rupert Murdoch. That won't happen now; the pirate has already claimed his booty. But some United faithful haven't lost their sense of humor. Last week a protester smashed a window in a building near Old Trafford. In black ink he left a message on what remained of the pane: "Sorry about the damage, but don't worry--a Glazer will be here soon." ?
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