The soccer match between English clubs Chelsea and Manchester City on Thursday ultimately means nothing. The English season ends Sunday (with one tiny asterisk), the standings will be set, and the teams will fly to America for two games, one here and one in New York, that are, in soccer parlance, friendlies.
But for some people, the game means a lot. A chance to see a favorite team or a favorite player in person, to root not at a game on TV and not on a trip that might cost you thousands of dollars.
The final games of the English Premier League season are Sunday. Manchester City is already locked into second place, a finish that – and long time Man City fans will chuckle at this – is a bit disappointing considering the team came in first last season. Chelsea will finish either third or fourth, and therein lies the one technicality in which the English season might not end just yet. If Chelsea plays to a scoreless tie against Everton and fourth-place Arsenal beats Newcastle 2-1, the teams would finish tied for third in Premier League, and be even on all tiebreakers. Who’s third and who’s fourth in the EPL matters a good deal, since the fourth-place team has to go through a two-leg series to reach the main draw of the Champions League, while the third-place team goes straight to the group phase. The Premier League said Friday that the one-game playoff would be held on Sunday, May 26. It’s not a simple parlay, but it could happen, in which case, no one’s sure what happens.
“We have been assured by Relevant (the promoter) that Chelsea will play the match in St. Louis,”said Vicki Bryant, the Cardinals executive in charge of the event. A team publicist said the Rally Squirrel had been dispatched to England to make sure Chelsea won.
Here are some of the ways the game resonates in St. Louis.
THE FAVORITE SON
Ernis Basic of south St. Louis is sitting at an outdoor table at a hookah bar not far from Bevo Mill, lamenting that he and his friends were unable to get tickets to the game and that they’re now going for many times their face value online.
“It’s outrageous,” he said. “The whole Bosnian community loves the sport, everything about the sport and especially because we have one of our natives playing in the game and he’s considered one of the greatest soccer players.”
He’s referring to Man City striker Edin Džeko, the Bosnian Diamond, who led the team in scoring in Premier League matches with 14 goals, even though he started just 15 games (he came on as a substitute in the other 16).
“Džeko has made a name, not only for Bosnia, but for the whole soccer community,” said Edis Subasic, one of Basic’s friends.
While Basic and his friends are hoping to find less expensive tickets outside Busch Stadium on Thursday, Anel Mujkanovic, who works in the marketing department for SabaH, the St. Louis-based Bosnian newspaper, got three tickets, for himself, his father and his brother. The main attraction was Džeko.
“The Bosnians who bought tickets did it in hopes of seeing Džeko,” Mujkanovic said. “I was not a Man City fan till Džeko started playing for them. Before them, he was at Wolfsburg (in Germany) and I was a fan of theirs.
“I really didn’t see fans for Man City who supported the team before. Mainly if they supported a club it was Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal. Since Džeko went to City, if you go to bars or coffee shops early in the morning when the Premier League plays, they’re watching him on television. If he goes somewhere else, I’ll follow him. There’s talk he might go to Borussia Dortmund. If that happens, I’ll automatically stop following Man City.”
Džeko was born in Sarajevo, but with St. Louis’ large Bosnian community, it makes him the closest thing to a local hero in the game. The only Bosnian player who even comes close among local fans is Vedad Ibisevic, a Bosnian refugee who came to America and played at Roosevelt High and St. Louis U. (for a year) before going pro and returning to Europe. He currently plays for German club Stuttgart.
The breakup of Yugoslavia scattered the country’s talent among the several national teams, but this is a good time to be a fan of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Halfway through European qualifying, they are atop their group. In their most recent match, on March 22, Džeko scored twice (and Ibisevic once) in a 3-1 win over Greece, their closest pursuer. In five qualifying matches, Džeko has seven goals.
“Especially with little fans, younger kids, they look at him as a role model,” Mujkanovic said. “In Wolfsburg, they won the championship in the German league. He came to Man City and they won the final. Wherever he goes, the team does very good.”
Mike Sense, who works in development at Covenant Theological Seminary in West County and is finishing up a masters in divinity there, was living in western China, near Tibet. There was one place in town, a hotel, that got ESPN International, and whenever his favorite club, Chelsea, was playing, he would walk – there were no taxis – about two miles to the hotel to watch Champions League games that aired from 1:45 to 3:45 a.m and then walk back to where he lived. “They really do have fans all over,” said Sense, who’s 32.
English soccer fans are known for their passion, and you don’t have to be born there to have it. Sense didn’t become a Chelsea fan until he was studying in Europe and a friend took him to a game at Chelsea because that’s where they were. He walked into Chelsea’s stadium, Stamford Bridge, and fell in love. “It was the charm of the Bridge,” he said. “I’d never heard 43,000 people singing the same song, yet having semblance of reverence and propriety for good play, even for the other team.”
That’s much the same thing that happened to Greg Schuette of Maplewood, who was only a casual fan till he went to a game at Chelsea in 2006. Now, his car is intentionally blue because it’s the team’s colors, he has a giant Fathead picture of Chelsea star Frank Lampard in his kitchen, and his daughter’s name is, you guessed it, Chelsea. (As he’s been told countless times, she’s lucky he wasn’t a fan of a club like Everton.) “Pretty much every Sunday, I live and breathe Chelsea,” he said.
Historically, it’s been a lot tougher to be a Manchester City fan. The team was so bad in the ‘90s that it dropped down to England’s third division in the sport’s relegation system. (The last three teams in each division get dropped down a division each season, with the top three in the lower division taking their place. Imagine the Astros or Cubs being sent to Class AAA after a bad year.)
Eric Brighton, a St. Louisan who just moved to Florida, grew up a Man City fan because his grandfather had been stationed in England during the Korean War and became close friends with a Man City fan. That was a tough break, because had he been a fan of Man City’s crosstown rival, Manchester United, he’d have enjoyed bountiful success. Instead, there were a lot of losses over the years and when he would go out wearing Man City shirts sent to him from England, people would invariably ask if it was from Manchester United. “No, Manchester City,” he’d say. “I don’t think I’m supposed to like Manchester United.”
It’s a lot easier to be a Man City fan since the team was purchased by a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, which has allowed the team to buy up top talent on the transfer market. It causes some tough choices though. You want the team to do well, but there’s something about doing it by just buying a bunch of good players. Some, after a lifetime of suffering, are delighted.
“Look what Chelsea has done,” said Robin Smith, 54, of Chesterfield, who works in marketing for a publisher and who grew up just outside of Manchester before coming to St. Louis to go to college and staying. “They’ve got a billionaire Russian. It’s the reality of Premier League football, the biggest damn sport in the world as far as I’m concerned. I’m delighted we’ve won something. I see a lot of online negative comments that we bought the FA Cup, that we bought the (Premier League) championship. It’s the reality of the game. For 50 years we’ve been appalling. Don’t we have the right to win something? Buy more players.”
“Once I could get on the Internet and follow the sport more closely,” Brighton said, “I realize I’d picked the worst soccer team in England. But it stuck. It’s the curse that Cubs fans have, to be a lovable loser. I don’t like being a loser and I’m glad they’re winning again. If I had the Internet, I might have moved on and found a better team.”
SOURCE: St. Louis Post Dispatch
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