When Barack Obama arrives in England in a few weeks on his celebrated European tour, he’ll probably disembark assuming that George W. Bush is the most despised American in Britain.
If so, he’ll be wrong. Currently, sitting atop the most-hated Yank chart is Tom Hicks, co-owner of the Liverpool soccer club and a Texas businessman who ran with the same crowd as the incumbent president when Bush was governor of the Lone Star state.
Hicks is part of a growing wave of Americans who have purchased English soccer teams (including the owner of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Malcolm Glazer, who now also owns controlling interest in the world’s most recognizable soccer team, Manchester United), convinced that owning a leading franchise in the top league of the world’s most popular game is a sure path to riches. Maybe so, but in the process Hicks — and, to a lesser extent, other American millionaires — managed to infuriate the locals.
To be sure, it’s not just an American gold rush. The owner of the Chelsea club is a Russian businessman — one of the richest men in the world — named Roman Abramovich. And Manchester City’s squad was recently purchased by Thaksin Shinawatra, the disgraced former prime minister of Thailand.
But such purchases don’t tend to rile the Brits nearly as much because those men, extraordinarily wealthy as they are, have demonstrated a willingness to pour hundreds of millions into their new clubs. In contrast, some of the Americans have been accused of being too willing to use debt to fund their investment, making the team appear to be subject to the whims of the market — which, last anyone looked, isn’t doing so well.
What’s even worse from the locals’ perspective is that men like Hicks — who also owns MLB’s Texas Rangers and the NHL’s Dallas Stars — don’t seem to appreciate the traditions of a club like Liverpool, which has a place in the city and the nation’s heart is similar to that of the Boston Red Sox . . . times a hundred. That’s why Liverpudlians are practically begging for a group from Dubai to buy out Hicks and Co., and there has even been talk of Liverpool’s fans trying to pool their money and make a bid of their own.
What has Hicks done wrong? To American eyes accustomed to the George Steinbrenners of the sports world, not much, as the team continues to perform relatively well on the field. But to apoplectic English and Liverpool fans, to whom tradition is vital, Hicks couldn’t be a more bumbling, stumbling embarrassment. In fact, when his son attended a game in February and went to a pub afterwards, he was spit upon, had beer thrown at him, and had to be rescued.
Hicks and his co-owner, Canadian George Gillett Jr. (owner of the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens), have publicly quarreled on more than one occasion. It was reported that Hicks had sounded out another potential manager (coach) for the team, undermining the current and highly respected skipper, Rafa Benitez. He even asked one of the club’s most solid links to the past, chief executive Rick Parry, to resign, on grounds he was disloyal (Parry refused). The always-excitable English press has occasionally taken to calling the team “Hicksville.”
But the final straw, for many fans, came two months later. While Liverpool played its key game of the year — a Champions League clash with Arsenal — Hicks stayed home in Texas to watch the Rangers on opening day. “I would never miss our home opener,” he was quoted as saying, “but I will have the Liverpool game on my TV.” That, of course, drove Liverpool fans bananas.
None of this, clearly, rises to the level of a foreign-policy crisis, of course. But it is indicative of a clash of cultures — of which Obama should be aware. Having lived in Europe recently, I can attest to the fact that most Europeans do like individual Americans (though not President Bush). But when they think about the United States, what does tend to irritate them is the arrogance of some Americans who convey the idea that everything stars-and-stripes is superior.
European soccer — especially in Liverpool — is something close to a sacred rite. What Bush buddy Hicks has done is akin to walking into a church, lighting a cigarette, and cracking open a beer. Note to Obama: the best way to reach out to our British friends and improve Anglo-American relations would be to get Hicks to sell the team.
Odds: 6-7 | this past week: same
Odds: 7-6 | this past week: same