HARD TO believe, but the Eagles are not the only professional football team with fans in this town.
The other day, I ran into a bunch of leather-tonsils glued to the tube at an Old City pub, cheering their favorite team. Instead of the lyrical E-A-G-L-E-S chant, it was more like “bloody good pass, chap.”
Their favorite football team: Manchester United.
Yes, it’s the football the rest of the world plays – namely, soccer.
And with the English Premier League season in full swing, local soccer fans are crowding into the handful of city taverns that carry live satellite broadcasts from Europe. On Wednesday, the cheers you heard coming from places like Dickens Inn (2nd and Lombard) and O’Neal’s (3rd and South) were for United ‘s match against rival Liverpool.
“It’s just like going to a bar and cheering for the Eagles,” said Dickens owner James Stephens. “You’re fanatical about a team – you scream and shout and pray.”
Of course, from these NFL-ized eyes, I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.
Me, I watch for 20 minutes, and all I see is a bunch of guys in shorts running back and forth, nonstop. Soccer fans watch, and they’re cheering every kick. Hell, they even cheer when the ball stops rolling.
I’m used to enjoying Jon Runyan crushing into a defensive lineman, spitting blood and sweat in a rage. I watch soccer, and I try to imagine Runyan in kneesocks.
“I’m more of an NFL fan,” said O’Neal’s owner Tom Mooney. “But I think there ‘s plenty of excitement in both sports.”
“The pace of the game is entirely different,” said Kristoffer Lassen, of Norway, a Dickens reg’lar who works at a Center City law firm. “American football is all stop and go. Soccer has more of ongoing flow.”
The way I see it, that’s a problem for beer drinkers. The NFL conveniently offers an opportunity to gulp brew between every play. Timeouts are for grabbing another pitcher. Soccer, though, keeps fans transfixed. Some guys can nurse a pint for an entire half, their eyes never leaving the TV screen.
And then there’s the severe lack of scoring. During the United game, I never saw the ball come within 10 yards of the net. Someone told me later the final score was 1-0.
One? What’s everyone cheering for?
“Well, there are a lot of chances to score,” Lassen shrugged.
And, besides, this was United – practically the hottest soccer team in the world, especially after winning last year’s Premiership, the Super Bowl of English soccer.
A look at the Dickens crowd, though, revealed the excited, red-faced look of an Irish street gang; judging by the accents, most of the fans had just arrived from Dublin.
Frank Bertucci, a former Inky sports writer, had himself plopped on a barstool front and center. He spent more time writing about the big four – the Phillies, Sixers, Flyers and Eagles – but got hooked on soccer after covering the ’99 World Cup.
“I like it because it’s foreign,” he said. “I can talk with authority without anyone questioning me.”
He filled me in on the long-standing rivalry between Manchester and Liverpool, about United’s star midfielder, Juan Sebastian Veron from Argentina, how Manchester is now the equivalent of the New York Yankees.
“They’re the most loved,” Bertucci said, “and the most hated.”
Stephens said: “When I first started cheering for them, Manchester United was a bad team. All my life, Liverpool was hot. We’ve paid our dues. We suffered. Now we have a winner.”
Sounded a bit like your typical Philadelphia fan.
Joe Sixpack, by Staff Writer Don Russell, was written this week with a glass of Fuller’s ESB. He appears every other week in Big Fat Friday.