Trundling along Sir Matt Busby Way, the city of Manchester, England, at my back, I pause for a moment on a dirty cobblestone bridge to take in the epicenter of the sports world.
Admittedly, upon arrival I'm not in the clearest state of mind: I've crossed an ocean, several time zones, Piccadilly traffic and a good portion of England to get here. So at first glance my reaction to Old Trafford is, I must say, embarrassingly and typically American. As a structure, it does not immediately impress. Red brick. A glass facade. Twisted erector-set style steel beams painted white. The stadium is cradled by train tracks on one side and a dead canal on the other. Just up the road are the classic English pubs and take-away chip shops that are synonymous with soccer.
The East side of the stadium is one of the few things that actually stands out, but only because it's painted red and pewter -- the exact colors of the Tampa Bay Bucs. Other than that, Old Trafford looks more like Reliant Stadium's little brother and not the sacred ground of über soccer team Manchester United or the center of what has become a truly global sports story.
It's raining, of course, and there are giant construction cranes on site working on the latest expansion to the stadium. By 2007, Old Trafford will seat 76,000. But other than that, there are no visual clues that standing before you is the home of the world's largest and most prestigious sports team.
Just as I'm writing down the words, Malcolm Glazer paid $1.47 billion for this? a family of six walks by and lines up at the box office for stadium tour tickets. The dad has two cameras dangling around his neck. The kids are all dressed in Man U's red home kits. They are of Pakistani decent. The group of women behind them is from Dublin. Behind them, Denmark, Japan, Hong Kong and then, I swear, a family from Birmingham, England, cued up next to a family from Birmingham, Ala.
In all there are eight countries represented in my stadium tour group. Half the group is female and nearly every race and continent on the planet is accounted for. There is a grandfather with us as well as a 12-week-old baby.
I click my pen and quickly scratch out my previous observation. A better question would be: Does Malcolm Glazer understand what he just paid $1.5 billion for?
For Manchester United's worldwide fan base of 75 million, Old Trafford is like soccer Disneyland. Each year nearly a quarter-million fans pay nine quid for a look at the team's museum and pitch. Today's a slow day, I'm told. Most people are on holiday. The fixtures for next season don't come out for a few more weeks. But in August, yikes, they'll be booking 42 tours a day and the line will be out to the canal.
It's amazing, really. Today we won't get to see a goal scored, or a single pass. There are no tour cameos from players or coaches. What you do get to experience on this tour, however, is a sense of how sports can shrink the world right before your very eyes.
And ears. While waiting for our tour guide to show up, I slipped into the men's room inside the Red Café where the club has historic highlights piped in from the last, oh, 127 years. "Oh yes indeed," said the speaker over the urinal, " and The Treble looms vast!" The Treble is, of course, in reference to the three trophies this team won in 1999 (think: soccer grand slam, only bigger). An accomplishment second only to Man U's triumphant win in the 1967 European Cup. Man U was the first English team to win the Euro Cup and it did so nine years after eight players -- "The Young Kings of British Soccer" -- were killed in a plane wreck in Munich.