A Manchester City team-funded synthetic football pitch on the roof of a New York school is the first of its kind in Manhattan.
Ambitious Man City shout news from US rooftops
An earnest young American reporter concluded an interview with the multi-nationally famous Manchester City goalkeeper Shay Given by asking: "And could I check the spelling of your name?" A 25-year-old man who grew up playing football in the middle of the United States happened upon a Manchester City exhibition in a park in Chinatown and confessed to no prior knowledge of any "Manchester City" and said: "No, I didn't know that Manchester had two teams."
And as the clamorous drumbeat of baseball marginalised all else in New York's summertime sports coverage, a born-and-raised baseball fan and principal whose Harlem school received a new rooftop pitch from City reckoned that as of several months ago: "I would have known Manchester, England, but not Manchester City." Yet if awareness comes in strained increments, well, there was the cab driver who collected two fans visiting from Manchester and along the way said: "Oh, Manchester City's a very big team now."
As the 130-year-old club moults from its more anonymous past and further into the very big "now" it has inhabited since Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bought it in 2008, the team have spent the week hopscotching through New York and next-door New Jersey. They played in a half-full stadium - and lost 2-0 - in a friendly against Sporting Lisbon, whose fans decidedly outnumbered City fans because of the large Portuguese population around nearby Newark, the largest city in the state of New Jersey.
They graced a news conference alongside the three other clubs in this New York Challenge tournament - Tottenham Hotspur, Sporting Lisbon and the New York Red Bulls (whom City play tonight) - so that Roberto Mancini, their manager, could answer serial questions about which wildly speculated purchase his club might make next. "We cannot buy all the players that are in the world," he said. "This is impossible."
Mostly, City have gone about leaving a fresh imprint, one American at a time, in a country with a long, dogged streak of resistance to the world's game, a trait that might be melting more than ever after America's heady showing in winning a group that included England and reaching the last 16 at the World Cup in South Africa. "We'll try to let the local people know what we're all about," said Gareth Barry, the England international midfielder.
For now, the vast country remains an oasis of privacy for football players unaccustomed to untroubled strolls in public. "We like coming into the US because this is a country where we can chill out and where we can really be ourselves," said Patrick Vieira, the 34-year-old World Cup-winning France midfielder whose signing last January launched the 2010 haul that this summer has landed Jerome Boateng, Yaya Toure and David Silva - internationals for Germany, Ivory Coast and Spain respectively.
Every so often, Vieira said, Americans will see him, commence guessing and say something akin to: "I saw you somewhere, but I don't remember where." Vincent Kompany, the Belgian centre-back who has been at City for two seasons, added: "People sometimes ask me if I'm a movie star, and it's very easy for me to say that I am not." Vladimir Weiss certainly feels like one nowadays, having helped Slovakia to a stirring victory over Italy and passage to the knockout stage of the World Cup.
His return to his home country marked the departure of all his spare time, his ears filling with plaudits and congratulations and his walks in public happily trammelled with people wishing to appear with him in photographs, obtain his autograph or kindly shake his hand. Yet upon setting foot in New York, he walked through Manhattan as would any lavishly tattooed man in his 20s with sawed-off blond hair. He had himself an awed tourist's day. He saw Times Square. He saw the Empire State Building and refrained from taking the lift to the top only because, he said: "The queues are too big."
While he already sees his shirt upon a smattering of fans around Manchester and feels "really proud", not a soul in the sidewalk masses recognised him on Wednesday. Had he craved such recognition, he would have had to go across the Hudson River to Harrison, New Jersey, to a new 25,000-seat stadium shining from an open field near abandoned warehouses and housing the New York Red Bulls of the US's often-overshadowed Major League Soccer.
There, Mancini and Barry met the wee clot of hard-core American soccer journalists as well as an incoming lot from England, and while representatives from three other clubs lined the dais, the noise centred on Mancini and just whom his club might sign next in the open-market breathlessness. With each inquiry, Mancini got a grin and a twinkle as if bemused by the cacophony. Of the American Landon Donovan, who thrived last year on loan at Everton, Mancini said: "He is a good player."
Of the much-speculated 20-year-old Italian Mario Balotelli, who had a rocky year at Inter Milan, Mancini said: "He is a good player." Of the Brazilian Ramires, who looks likely to sign for Chelsea after a reporter showed Mancini a BlackBerry screen with a report indicating Ramires was bound for Manchester City, the Italian said: "He is a good player." He did elaborate on that refrain to remind everyone that he found urgency unnecessary given the time left with the market, and on Friday night he did field another question about pursuing Donovan with: "Why not?" He also answered queries about his trademark scarf, saying he had left it in Manchester with the air distressingly hot and humid in New York.
Sitting to Mancini's right in the interview session, Barry said of the swirl of expectations: "The players we're signing, it's probably gone up another level. It's exciting but, as players, we need to perform on the pitch." They spoke just around the corner from the Red Bulls' gift shop, by now utterly dominated with the shirts of Thierry Henry, their new signing, a name unrecognizable to most Americans but already ballyhooed among the football-minded of New York, particularly the immigrant communities (save, perhaps, for the Irish). All the clatter had ebbed by Thursday morning when Mancini and six players visited the Lexington Academy between 103rd and 104th streets in East Harlem.
There, nobody asked about potential signings as the school dedicated its new pitch, six floors up, with synthetic grass on the surface and views of the Triborough Bridge in the distance. "What you have done for us, we have been dreaming about for years," said Tony Hernandez, the principal, briefly appearing on the verge of tears. "I don't need a pinch. It's a reality. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts." Addressing students, teachers and visitors from both Manchester and Abu Dhabi, Hernandez described a school in which 89 per cent of students speak other languages - Spanish, for almost all - and many hail from countries in which football is the national pastime.
Amazed by the unlikely confluence of his school, City and the UAE - a cooperation that stemmed from a parent's knowledge of the club's community programmes, Hernandez apologised in advance for possibly mispronouncing the names of the visitors from Abu Dhabi. One, Yousef al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the US, followed Hernandez at the lectern and said, "Everybody seems only too happy to walk the six flights up the stairs to the new field rather than the 12 blocks to the nearest usable field."
He presented the school with a replica of a dhow and a plaque commemorating the event, and the entire crowd proceeded up the stairs to the roof where the children participated in drills with the players. Two hours later and more than 100 blocks downtown in Chinatown, a crowd of maybe 150 ringed a fenced-in park even if some had not the faintest clue of the celebrated existence of an Emmanuel Adebayor. Several, however, betrayed their status as visitors from England by chanting: "Come on, City!"
Lawrence Cook, an American who became a City convert via his friend Barry O'Driscoll, said of the American interest: "It's not there yet. Unless you follow the Premier League, your regular American doesn't know the difference between Manchester City and Manchester United. In fact, they just assume you're talking about Manchester United." For it to soar more here, he said, the US needs to produce a luminous star in Europe. "And not a goalkeeper," he added.
City fans, meanwhile, continue to look as if they see stars everywhere. One, canny from the taxi with the knowledgeable driver, said of the UAE: "Please tell them thank you." Standing in the Chinatown park across an ocean from home, he added: "When you see the marketing, the PR, the entourage the club are bringing now," as opposed to previous exhibition trips, "it's things the Chelseas, the Manchester Uniteds, the Arsenals have been doing for years, and so it's going in the right direction."
A trip such as this makes another impression, even if the path to fame here can be humorously long. On Friday night, after a match Mancini called "normal" given his club's rustiness and his squad strewn all over the world, a reporter asked Kolo Toure if he thought Americans recognised him. "I don't think so, but I'm not sure," the former Arsenal mainstay said, shortly before another and very seasoned American reporter approached and wrapped up an interview by asking Toure: "Can I get your name again?" @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org