By Ridge Mahoney
On so many levels and in so many ways, American soccer fans owe Sir Alex Ferguson a lot.
During a 27-year tenure that ended earlier this month with his retirement, Ferguson and United converted countless Americans into fans of the club. Brimming with outstanding players and festooned by trophies, United stormed into the consciousness thanks to expansive coverage of the Premier League and Champions League.
To win either title meant topping United, one way or the other, as Manchester City did last year to claim the English title on the final day of the season, and Real Madrid – in spectacular fashion – accomplished earlier this year to derail United’s European ambitions. As the architect of this amazing success, Ferguson grew and matured along with English soccer when the ambitious Premier League commenced operations in 1992, and took its top teams into the mega-rich corporate world. He adjusted adroitly a decade ago when purchase of the storied club by American billionaire Malcolm Glazer and his sons triggered a xenophobic backlash and proclamations of impending doom.
His total of two Champions League titles is rather meager, yet domestic dominance – 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups – is indicative of a shrewd organizer and motivator capable of fending off more and tougher challenges. None of the many Premier League teams that have been bought by rich foreign investors during his tenure have come close to matching his success.
Yes, Arsenal ran through the 2003-04 season unbeaten but hasn’t won a trophy since then. (Its run of 49 games unbeaten ended with a 2-0 loss to United at Old Trafford aided by a controversial penalty kick.) Chelsea’s volatile management style has won awards but not much respect. Like Arsenal and United, Liverpool also has an American owner but can’t crack the top five domestically.
As a club loved by some and detested by many, or vice versa, United always starts up spirited conversation and heated debate. As the team to beat, full stop, it raised the bar for just about every ambitious club, domestic and European, and under Ferguson’s guidance it has maintained an incredible level of excellence year after year, season after season, decade after decade. And not many matches in the sport's history have been as dramatic as United's 2-1 defeat of Bayern Munich in the 1998-99 Champions League final claimed with two stoppage-time goals.
A few touchstones in the American game involve Ferguson. Had he not kicked a soccer shoe into the face of David Beckham during a heated locker-room argument in 2003, who knows if Becks might have left United much later than he did, or perhaps not at all, and never found his way to America? Not a fan of Beckham’s glamorous lifestyle, Ferguson and the acclaimed midfielder who had joined the club had tolerated each other until Ferguson got the boot in, so to speak.
Though both parties claimed to have patched up the incident as did the stitches to the scar above Beckham’s left eye, Ferguson dropped Beckham for several important matches played after the FA Cup loss to Arsenal that so incensed the manager. In June of that year, United sold Beckham to Real Madrid for $41 million, and eventually, a falling-out with Real manager Fabio Capello prompted Beckham to sign with MLS.
Ferguson brought United to North America for exhibition games several times, and while the tours certainly stemmed from revenue generation and brand promotion, the club’s drawing power seldom wavered. Rivaled only by the top Mexican clubs and Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona in popularity, United packed fans into stadiums throughout the country.
Like it or not, United also helped restore the natural order in the hierarchy of clubs. MLS executives excessively giddy about league all-star teams beating the likes of Chelsea, Everton and Fulham that were in preseason training had to swallow 5-2 and 4-0 defeats inflicted by Manchester United.
Three years ago in Houston, most of the goalscorers were hardly household names: Federico Macheda got the first two, followed by Darron Gibson, Tom Cleverley and a recent signing named Javier Hernandez, whose presence helped drive the attendance to more than 70,000 in the last All-Star Game played at a large venue. That a few backups could so clearly outclass the class of MLS served as a sobering reminder of how different is the world of Sir Alex.
This paean to his accomplishments comes not from a United fan, though many of them are personal friends. His cantankerous responses to questions, his bitter berating of officials, and his stubborn adherence to the company line cast him perfectly as a megalomaniac and thus, the ideal villain. Whether it was referees supposedly adding a few extra minutes of “Fergie” time if United needed them, or him snapping back sarcastically at a question he deemed to be stupid, there was always reason to dislike him. Not that he cared.
Yet only by being so successful could he be so despised, and only a man of exceptionally strong character could have endured, and flourished, amid searing media scrutiny and intense competition. He takes into retirement an amazing record and many of the sport's most memorable moments.