Americans Own Liverpool Soccer Club. Now What?

The owners of the Boston Red Sox have finally acquired one of the world's most famous soccer clubs. After a ferocious boardroom battle, they've bought Liverpool Football Club, England's most successful team. But some people wonder if the new American owners realize what they have taken on. The port city of Liverpool is not like any other British city. It has its own distinctive subculture — and some of the planet's most demanding, passionate and opinionated fans.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The city of Liverpool, England, has a great deal on its mind these days. And much of it has to do with one man, an American named John Henry, and whether he has any idea what he's doing.

Henry is the owner of the Boston Red Sox. His company has just bought a soccer team, Liverpool Football Club, for nearly $500 million after a ferocious legal battle.

But it's unclear if the miracle John Henry worked in turning around the Red Sox will also work in Liverpool. While the team that he's bought is the most successful in the history of English soccer, this season it's off to a very bad start.

As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the team belongs to an unusual city with some of the world's most dedicated fans, now among the world's most anxious fans.

PHILIP REEVES: Alex Fleming is on the train traveling home. He studies medicine in London. He has another passion: Liverpool Football Club.

Mr. ALEX FLEMING (Student, London): I would say, with Liverpool, it's more of almost an emotional investment. It's like a religion almost for a lot of people. And it's not just the team; it's a connection to the city, the place, the ideas of the people from Liverpool.

REEVES: This is a big day. Fleming's team is in action for the first time since being taken over by New England Sports Ventures, owners of the Boston Red Sox. He's going to the game.

Mr. FLEMING: It's Liverpool against Everton. They're our local rivals, potentially our biggest rivals. And so it's a match with a lot riding on it today.

REEVES: Fleming's a scouser. That's what you call someone from Liverpool, someone born on the east banks of the port's great river, the Mersey.

Mr. FLEMING: It originally comes from a type of stew. People in Liverpool used to eat this type of stew called scouse. And the name just stuck to people as scousers.

REEVES: As the Mersey looms into view, Fleming's spirits rise.

Mr. FLEMING: I really think it's a historical mentality. Liverpool used to be one of the biggest, most powerful cities in the world, almost, you know, the New York of its day, a lot of the world's trade passing through Liverpool, very, very influential in terms of wealth, architecture, politics, everything. And so I think that's really carried through to the modern day, you know?

REEVES: The moment you step out of the train and into Liverpool, you know the city is different from anywhere else in England. In the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Irish moved here to escape the Great Potato Famine at home. The place feels as if it belongs somewhere else.

Dr. ROGAN TAYLOR: This is not England. This is a Celtic city. This is made up of Lancashire folk, Scots, Irish and Welsh.

REEVES: Dr. Rogan Taylor is an expert on soccer, football as it's known here, and a leading voice among Liverpool fans.

Dr. TAYLOR: We've always been facing away from England, towards Ireland immediately, of course, and then beyond to the other side of the Atlantic.

REEVES: Taylor says scousers are proud of this.

Dr. TAYLOR: Well, I mean they walk round with T-shirts on saying, you know, I'm scouse not English.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. TAYLOR: That's what they think.

REEVES: The big game is drawing near. Liverpool fans are calming their nerves by downing pints of beer in a pub right by their stadium, Anfield. Today's game is not actually at Anfield. It's a few minutes down the road, at the ground of their Premier League opponents, Everton. These people prefer to drink on home territory. Everyone's talking about the sale of Liverpool to the Red Sox, including Dean Pegg, a plumber.

Mr. DEAN PEGG (Plumber): The way football is nowadays, it's all money driven, and it shouldn't be. It's a working man's sport, football is. But it don't seem to be any more. There's more corporate people involved and it's all about money.

Football should be about the fans who go week in, week out, pay the money for the season ticket, and that's it.

REEVES: Pegg hopes the new owners will realize that Liverpool is different. This city has produced great singers, not least The Beatles. At Anfield, they make their own music.

Mr. PEGG: "You'll Never Walk Alone," yeah, "You'll Never Walk Alone." It's the anthem about Liverpool, isn't it, everyone sticking together, walking through a storm? Fantastic.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

REEVES: That's a recording of Liverpool fans at a home game. Sounds like they're having fun, doesn't it? Rogan Taylor says they're not.

Dr. TAYLOR: I think the New World thinks sport should be about having fun, you know, about entertainment, whereas football in England and in the old football world is about group suffering, pain and the acute sense of identity.

Identity is created much more powerfully by shared suffering than it is by shared joy, for example.

REEVES: Chris Cairns is a scouser and a professional comic. He finds nothing funny about being a Liverpool fan.

Mr. CHRIS CAIRNS (Comedian): On the day of a match, I have to read the back sports page before I open up from the front, because we'll lose. I have got a Buddha statue in my house, a wooden one that someone gave me as a housewarming gift.

REEVES: A Buddha statue?

Mr. CAIRNS: Yeah. I have to rub his belly.

REEVES: So you rub Buddha's belly...

Mr. CAIRNS: I rub Buddha's belly, yeah, yeah ,and if we are losing, I go in, and I'm at my home, I will go in and rub his head and think: Please let us score a goal.

REEVES: Kickoff is only a few minutes away. The Liverpool fans pile out of the pub, and head for the game by foot. Matt Almond, a factory worker, says his team has made the worst start to the season for decades. It really needs to win today.

Mr. MATT ALMOND (Factory Worker): A top club like Liverpool, you've got to be winning. Where we are at the moment isn't acceptable for Liverpool, like near the relegation zone down by bottom three, there's just no way that's happening, it's just, just not acceptable.

REEVES: Liverpool's fans blame this on their previous American owners: Tom Hicks and George Gillett. Some of them campaigned fiercely against the two men, whom the fans blame for loading their club with massive debts.

Rogan Taylor says the fans are determined never to let that happen again. He's part of a group of fans seeking a seat on the board.

Dr. TAYLOR: The only real protection that supporters can get is to take equity in the club. That's when you get properly represented. That's when you can see all the documentation. And you have to be heard.

(Soundbite of soccer match)

REEVES: The game begins. Listen and you'll understand what this sport means to this city.

(Soundbite of booing)

REEVES: Liverpool lose again: two-nil. It's a blow to John Henry of the Red Sox and his new army of scouser fans. But these are very early days.

Philip Reeves, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "You'll Never Walk Alone")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) ...walk alone. Sing it everybody. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart. And you'll never walk alone. You'll never walk alone. And you'll never walk alone. You'll never walk alone. And you'll never walk alone.

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