Lerner looms like a godsend for long-suffering Villa supporters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 August, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 August, 2006, 12:00am

It's a topic that just won't go away. When will Americans wake up and embrace the world game? Everybody else is mad for soccer except the Yanks, or so it appears. And its not like they haven't had ample opportunities to show some love for the game. Transcendent talents like Pele and Franz Beckenbauer played club football there and they even hosted the World Cup in 1994.

Yet, despite the fact that the United States national team were making inroads internationally before an abysmal showing at this year's World Cup, soccer fanaticism seems limited to a few urban pockets in the US. While a couple of radio commentators were calling for the scalp of then national team coach Bruce Arena after Germany 2006, any banter seemed muted. And avoiding the tentacles of America's illogical and ravenous sports talk media is no easy feat.

Yet, when it comes to soccer, it appears the Yanks just don't get it nor do they care to. Perhaps it's the rest of the world that doesn't get it because do you know how the country with the world's largest economy shows respect? Money. It doesn't matter if you are in the most remote corner of the Amazon rain forest, if there is money to be made, American interests will find you. Soccer is no different. Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer saw a world of possible profits with Manchester United and decided to pounce on the English giants for a mere US$1.5 billion.

But the rancour that ensued over the American tycoon's purchase was deafening. Old Malcolm and his sons were hung in effigy while the salacious English tabloids pounded them incessantly. Fearing that the Glazers would take everything out and put little back in, diehard supporters' groups encouraged boycotts and told season ticket holders not to renew in the hopes that it would bleed the new owners to death financially and force them to sell the team. It's been a little more than one year since the heathen Yanks took over United, and how has the supporters' organised militancy against them worked out?

United found enough money to purchase Michael Carrick from Tottenham for US$35 million and have reportedly offered Bayern Munich another US$32 million for English international Owen Hargreaves. Even more damning to the boycott brigade is that the club have reported record season-ticket sales of 64,000. For better or worse, money almost always triumphs over militancy.

After the hostile reception the Glazers got in England, it seemed absurd that another Yank, and a fellow NFL owner no less, would also want to try his hand at English football. Yet, this past week Cleveland Brown's owner Randy Lerner moved closer to buying Premiership side Aston Villa for a little less than US$120 million. United, Villa are clearly not. They are a once proud club who have been in steady decline over the past 20 years. It sounds a lot like the team Lerner owns in the US. Despite the fact that the NFL enjoys nothing like the global exposure that the English Premier League does, the Browns probably have a bigger following around the world than Villa.

Cleveland are one of the most beloved and well supported American football teams around, featuring chapters of their fan clubs, known as the Browns' Backers, in a number of unlikely locales like Singapore and Moscow. The Lerner family took over the Browns in 1999 and all you need to know about their ownership philosophy is that in an era where naming rights for stadiums are up for the highest bidders, M & T Bank Stadium in Baltimore and Invesco Field in Denver take their place alongside Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Perhaps that's why there was nothing but glee among Villa supporters, who can finally see some hope, even if that hope is bought with US dollars. Frankly, they thought it was too good to be true when they heard Lerner speak of preserving the club's history while also ensuring that they have the resources to compete in today's game.

Hmmm, maybe some Yanks do get it, huh? And some very rich ones at that. Of course, I still cringe when I recall an array of xenophobic American writers chastising Zinedine Zidane for his notorious headbutt in the World Cup final.

Before that incident, most of them probably thought that Zinedine Zidane was the name of a toothpaste. But, I live in a part of the world where Brits on ESPN's regional SportsCenter show are allowed to talk about Shaquille O'Neal being 'marked under the basket'.

So perhaps I should be more forgiving about stereotypes and take a lead from the energised Villa fans. Ask them when they think the US will embrace soccer. Probably not a moment too soon, they will tell you.