Soccer, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet?
Well, not quite yet. But the enthusiasm that greeted Manchester United at the GM Renaissance Center and Real Madrid at Michigan Stadium on Friday lends credence to the belief European football is evermore an American game, too.
“The Beautiful Game” is no small attraction, clearly, in one of America’s great sports towns.
As a dozen Manchester United players walked into the GM Wintergarden, glorious in their red shirts emblazoned with golden Chevrolet “bowties” across their hearts, some of the several hundred people gathered, including those leaning out from the three stories of the atrium, spotted the star striker Wayne Rooney.
In unison, without prompting, many bellowed, “ROOOOOOOOOOO-ney! ROOOOOOOOOOO-ney! ROOOOOOOOOOO-ney!”
Presently, the crowd struck up one of the great “Man U” cheers, sung to the melody of a quintessentially American tune, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
“Glory, glory, Man United!
“Glory, glory, Man United!
“Glory, glory, Man United!
“The Red is marching on!”
About 200 years ago, when a bunch of well-fit guys associated with Great Britain and wearing red uniforms marched in from the direction of the Detroit River, the response was volleys from cannon and musket.
These footballers were hailed as conquering victors.
“In every stadium, since we arrived in L.A., we felt the support of the fans of Manchester United,” said Juan Mata, the gifted, attacking midfielder. “It’s amazing to realize how many fans we have in the United States.
“So for us, whether we’re in the hotel or we’re training, we feel the support,” added Mata, one of 76 players on the rosters of the International Champions Cup teams competing in the current exhibition tournament across the country. We feel at home. And that’s really good.”
Having paid, according to AdWeek, $560 million this year for its sponsorship of the 13-time British Premier League champions and 20-time British champions, Chevy made the most of the sparkling moment on its home turf.
“You know, it’s amazing, I guess there’s about a thousand people here,” said Timothy Mahoney, global marketing chief for GM, perhaps shooting a bit high. “But there’s 659 million Manchester United fans all over the world.
“So you’re part of a larger community of fans that really follow this great team.”
At that, the assembled fairly roared.
Players like it, too
What is growing, too, is the appreciation of the players for what they increasingly feel. Interest seems genuinely reciprocated, even beyond the Camaro owner Rooney and the Corvette owner Danny Welbeck casually eyeing some of the shiny new rides on display nearby.
“I think I came the first time to the U.S. on tour about 12 years ago, and the difference between now and then is massive,” midfielder Darren Fletcher said.
“You can see the popularity. You can see the interest people have got. And hopefully it’s been Manchester United that’s played a part in that; I think we have.”
A bit of cold water was tossed on the proceedings Friday, when Real Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti announced in Ann Arbor that one of the world’s great players, Cristiano Ronaldo, will not play today against his old team.
But one could sense that the players’ professed interest in this particular “friendly” is sincere, nonetheless.
For one thing, even a star like Rooney never has played before 100,000 fans.
“I’ve only ever played before as many as 90,000, in games at Wembley,” he said of London’s hallowed home for England’s national team.
“Obviously, it’s going to be a huge crowd and against a great team in Real Madrid, as well. It’s going to be an entertaining game, I’m sure.”
Later, sitting in the bowels of Michigan Stadium, before his team took the field for practice, Ancelotti made it plain.
“It’s never a friendly with Manchester United,” he said. “They are a fantastic team. We are in a fantastic stadium, and so we are ready to play and want to do our best.”
Is the longtime European coach surprised 110,000 might attend the game?
“No, I think the people here have a fantastic culture about sports,” he said. “They know sport. We have fantastic support from our fans.
“I think soccer in the USA is really improving.”
The American fans know their corners and tackles, too.
Wearing his Rooney uniform, fifth-grader Michael Luckhurst’s eyes were like saucers as he approached his idol for an autograph.
In the United Kingdom, there are concerns Rooney has seen his best days. Luckhurst knows that, but he is not so certain.
“I saw the last two games, the Galaxy game and the Roma game, and he’s been playing really well,” Luckhurst said.
Indeed, Rooney seems energized, as Man U barnstorms through The States.
As they stood before Rooney, Luckhurst’s dad, Mick, asked his older son Jack, “What is your favorite Wayne Rooney goal?”
Without missing a beat, Jack said, “Bicycle kick, Man City.”
The generally taciturn Rooney broke into a smile.
“You’ve seen the U.S. team in the World Cup, and they’ve done a great job,” Rooney said. “And you can see just the standard of football is getting better. And you can see American players who come over to the Premier League, they do really well.
“So, I think over the next five to 10 years, it’s really going to grow, and I’m sure the U.S. team will be competing by that time.”
International Champions Cup
Manchester United vs. Real Madrid
Kickoff: 4 today, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor
Tickets: Sold out