Liverpool's Yankees

By Margolick, David | Newsweek, December 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

Liverpool's Yankees

Margolick, David, Newsweek

Byline: David Margolick

The Americans who own the Red Sox buy a cherished English soccer team, with fans who could teach Boston something about devotion.

Standing one recent Sunday in the Kop, that section of Anfield stadium named for the site of a bloody battle in the Boer War, more than 12,000 of the Liverpool Football Club's most fervent fans burst into song. This was not the ragged, rote recitation of patriotic doggerel customarily heard before many sporting events, but something ferocious and precise, its every undulation sung in deafening, largely male unison. Their voices reverberating throughout the storied arena, the fans proved Phil Spector wrong: it was Liverpudlians--and they, after all, know their music--who invented the "Wall of Sound."

The song is the same one they've sung before every home game for nearly 50 years. It isn't some Merseyside standard written by local boys named Lennon and McCartney, but a show tune by a pair of Americans, circa 1945. The performance that afternoon in early November was even more ardent than usual, for although two more hours would pass before Liverpool beat its archrival, favored Chelsea, the fans already felt they'd won. "Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart," they belted out. "And you'll never walk alone, you'll never walk alone."

The only question was whether they would come to love Henry and Werner as much as they loved Rodgers and Hammerstein--or would they toss them out, as they just had Hicks and Gillett?

For those without corporate scorecards: John W. Henry and Tom Werner, owners of the Boston Red Sox, are, as of mid-October, owners of the Liverpool Football Club, too. They bought it for $294 million from two other Americans, Tom Hicks and George Gillett--or, to be more precise, from their creditors at the Royal Bank of Scotland. After an extraordinary wave of marches, billboards, boycotts, videos, and what Hicks called "Internet terrorism" directed at anyone thinking of bailing them out, they were forced to flee.

So Henry and Werner now curate one of England's most cherished clubs, and it's been a jolt for them. "Two and a half months ago I knew nothing about the sport, or very little," says Henry, who concedes he couldn't have named five teams in the English Premier League, or even have explained what "offside" means. But to British fans they're nothing new: foreign-born plutocrats, oligarchs, and sheiks have become as much a part of their game as midfielders and strikers.

What makes more sense in an era of globalization than moguls snapping up another country's teams? And what sport makes more sense to buy into than the world's most popular one? And what better place to do it than Britain, which is not just home to some of that sport's most famous clubs, but whose own millionaires appear too poor to pony up the pounds themselves?

True, foreigners have infiltrated American sports--Europeans in basketball, Latin Americans and Japanese in baseball--but primarily as players. With owners, the U.S. remains a net exporter. As long as they're benign--like Randy Lerner of the Cleveland Browns, who's quietly owned the British soccer team Aston Villa since 2006--that's OK with the fans. But when foreign owners are perceived, fairly or unfairly, as siphoning money out of their clubs rather than pumping it in, the fury can barely be contained.

Exhibit one is the Glazers, owners of mighty Manchester United (as well as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), whose precarious finances have petrified, and infuriated, United fans. Exhibits two and three: Hicks (former owner of the Texas Rangers) and Gillett (former owner of the Montreal Canadiens). Breaking their promise to build a new stadium, assuming debts that saddled the club, the pair quickly became villains in Liverpool. By the end, Hicks's son found it too perilous even to venture into a local pub, where he was menaced by apoplectic Scousers, as Liverpool residents are known. …

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