Football's new foreign legion

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After attracting players from abroad, many European clubs are also drawing in overseas fans, says Jonathan Wilson.

There is Guinness and Kilkenny on tap, pork chops and chips on the menu, and Manchester United memorabilia on the walls. As the many televisions around the room show Roy Keane leading his United team out of the tunnel before the Manchester derby, a group of fans grouped in front of the big screen at one end of the bar strikes up with, "Wooohhhh, woh, woh, wowowowoooohhhhh, Keano, Keano." At that moment, a similar scene is probably being played out in Irish pubs the length and breadth of Britain.

The Bobby Dazzler, though, is not in Britain. Listen closely, and you realise that there is something not quite right about the songs; there is a glitch of accent, an odd stiltedness, an absolute refusal ever to improvise: this is Moscow, and, for the most part, the songs have been learnt by rote. "When we were deciding which club's fans we would house, I didn't hesitate," says Alexei, the owner of the Bobby Dazzler. "I thought Man United fans would be more organised than the others. For big games we get up to around 150 of them watching the TVs."

The Moscow Reds supporters group was established in 2001 by, among others, Vadim Vasiliyev. "We wanted to set up an official branch," he explains, "but the club said we had too few fans, that we would have to be at least 100 to be official." Vadim and about 30 other Moscow Reds, though, pay an annual fee of around £30 to be members of the official Manchester United Supporters Club. "It gives me the right to buy tickets to games," he says, "although it's still tough. You have to book at least a month in advance." It was in 1995, when Russian television first started screening Premiership games, that supporting English sides first became viable in Moscow. "I started supporting United then because Andrei Kanchelskis played for them," Zhenya, one of those grouped around the big screen tells me. The winger, who was born in Ukraine but played for Russia's national side, has even visited the Bobby Dazzler to watch a game.

Of all the changes in football over the past decade, it is the breaking down of national boundaries that has been the most remarkable. When Arsenal won the English league title in 1989, nobody paid any attention to the fact their squad was entirely drawn from Britain and the Irish Republic; last season alone English Premiership clubs signed 79 overseas players. The pattern is similar elsewhere: in 1994 the Syrian Assaf al-Khalifa became the Russian Premier League's first player from outside the former Soviet Republics; last season there were 114.

Just as significant, though, is globalisation among fans. The boom has led in eastern Europe to the establishment of "sports bars", which take the concept further than their British equivalents, or even the Bobby Dazzler, by offering in-house betting. There are at least two on Novy Arbat, the neon-lit strip that gives Moscow nightlife its naffer edge.

Going to one on a Saturday afternoon, I was slightly surprised to have to go through a metal detector before being allowed entry. This, apparently, is standard practice. "When there is gambling," I was told, "it is better that there are no guns." One half of the vast basement was given over to a casino, the other half to a series of televisions, each showing a different Premiership game. On the big screen in the middle, not surprisingly, was Chelsea v Everton. Since the oligarch Roman Abramovich became Chelsea's owner, the London club now vies with United as Russia's favourite English team.

There is some resentment. Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, said that by investing in an English side, Abramovich was "spitting in the face of Russia", and the example of Rinat Akhmetov, the Ukrainian oligarch who has pumped £50m into his home town club Shakhtar Donetsk is regularly cited by the anti-Chelsea faction - but most just seem vaguely amused that a Russian could win the Premiership.

And, of course, in the manner of fans everywhere, most of those in blue insist they had nailed their colours to the mast long before Chelsea became the grandees they are today. "You started to see people in Chelsea shirts and scarves from 1992 when [the goalkeeper] Dmitri Kharin went there from CSKA Moscow," said Valery Petrakov, the head of the Moscow Chelsea Supporters Club. "And lots of people chose Chelsea because of their reputation for violence."

It is not just the biggest clubs who draw foreign support, though. Look along the front of the North Stand at Sunderland's Stadium of Light and you will see the insignia of supporters clubs from Easington to Lagos via Tallinn. Newcastle are improbably popular in Macedonia. A Bulgarian who once studied in England has gained notoriety for his support for League One side Colchester, while Rushden and Diamonds are also popular in Sofia simply "because of the name".

The presence of Gary Johnson, the former Latvia manager, at Yeovil has secured them a following in the Baltics, while their green-and-white colours mean that many of the Green Dragons - the hard-core of Olimpija Ljubljana's support - regard Yeovil as their English team. British fan culture, the idea of thousands loyally turning out to watch teams of eternal mediocrity, is, it seems, universally attractive.

That Balkan oddballs should dream of Rushden and Diamond's Nene Park may at first seem harmlessly amusing, and there's certainly something strangely welcoming about being accosted in a Slovenian bar to discuss the form of Yeovil striker Phil Jevons, but globalisation can have its drawbacks.

The miscegenation of cultures has already eroded the comforting stereotypes. The English are no longer so physical, the Italians so cynical or the Dutch so technical. Footballing culture is being homogenised, and the clashes of styles that used to make European competition so fascinating are no longer as stark.

That is an aesthetic point, but in Europe's smaller leagues globalisation has created more serious problems. Zoran Avramovic, the marketing manager at Red Star Belgrade, has urged Serbian television companies to stop screening so many games from abroad because fans would prefer to sit at home and watch eight matches a weekend from England, Italy, Spain and Germany than go to the Marakana to see Red Star play the likes of Radnicʫi Jugopetrol or CukaricʫiStankom.

Perhaps this is just an inevitable fact of globalisation, that when cultures mix it is the smaller, weaker, poorer ones that disappear. Offered a choice of English or Macedonian football, most people, whether English or Macedonian, will opt for the Premiership. As Fifa's membership expands beyond that of the United Nations, the danger is that the top clubs will be drawn from an ever-dwindling number of countries.

Football has always been the global game - its next task is to deal with being the globalised game.

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