It is half time and I haven’t yet heard a single swear word. Americans don’t swear much at football — sorry, soccer — games. The throng is different from a British crowd. More women. More multicultural. Less intense. It is too humid to be intense. The evening is dripping with heat. Globules of sweat bead the bald head of the man in front of me. The local team — DC United — are wearing black shirts, which must feel like running up and down the field in a hot wet dog blanket.
The last football match I went to before moving here was at Elland Road. Leeds United supporters are many things. Beleaguered. Reviled. But never humourless. Picture the jolly irony of 200 beer bellies chanting “you fat bastard” at the opposition goalkeeper as he prepares to take a goal kick. When players muck up or shank the ball wide, they are joyfully mocked.
There is none of that here. No taunts. No jeers. The worst insult so far was from a home fan who yelled “weak sauce” at his own team. Last season DC United finished bottom of the Eastern Conference. Atlanta United — who they are playing tonight — only need a win or draw to top the league. The stakes don’t seem that high. DC United fans have come wearing Real Madrid shirts. Arsenal shirts. Hawaiian shirts. Ice hockey shirts. No shirts. Between the nachos and fries on the stadium menu, the fast-food concession is selling a dish they’ve dubbed “Mac-a-Rooney and Cheese”. And charging up and down the field — as he has been since July — is Wayne Rooney himself.
Here he is. One of the best English players of his generation, captaining one of the worst teams in American Major League Soccer. Why? For the money. Perhaps. He is the highest-paid player in the history of the team. But DC United is also thrifty, catching commercial flights to games. Rooney will straggle through airport security along with the great American unwashed. Which will please the great American unwashed no end. They love him. On Rooney’s arrival in DC he was high-fived by an ecstasy of United fans who drove to meet him at the airport. When he ambled on to the pitch this evening, they lost it. And when he scores, they launch fireworks from the stadium roof and flares from the stands. He is the marquee player they’re ready to raise the roof for.
On the field, Rooney provides an assist for one of his teammates — Luciano Acosta. Acosta scores. Takes a running leap into Rooney’s arms, as if he were his dad. At 32, playing for DC United may well be Rooney’s final gig before retirement. But he is still really, really good. In August, while playing Orlando City, he created the winning goal in the 96th minute by sprinting 40 yards to tackle his opponent, wiping out, jumping up, driving down the pitch and lobbing the ball into the penalty box where it pinged off the head of his teammate and into the net. The goal went viral overnight. One million views in 12 hours. Rooney is no lame duck. This is his swan song.
It feels odd that anyone as famous as Rooney — who isn’t involved, or discernibly interested in, American politics — has ended up in DC. My seats are so high they put me eye-to-eye with the Capitol building. It crowns the horizon like a frosted white cupcake in a pastel-pink sky. I think of John McCain. Today is the day of his burial, 40 miles east — at the United States Naval Academy cemetery in Annapolis. America has spent the weekend mourning her “maverick”. The clip of his Romanesque thumbs-down on the floor of the Senate is doing a posthumous victory lap on social media. Diagnosed with brain cancer in early 2017, McCain returned to the senate in July. Three days later he walked on to its floor at 1:29am, winked and extended his thumb downwards, crossing party lines to block the repeal of “Obamacare’s” individual mandate. It was his final major legislative gesture. One in support of the due process he felt his party had eschewed. Not content to let American politics sing her swan song, he sang his own.
On the pitch, Rooney and his team are jumping up and down, arms aloft. The sweaty slice of Atlanta fans wedged into our corner of the field are drooping down the stadium steps, defeated. The gawky kid in glasses sitting next to me is shouting “ROO-NEY.” It’s “ROOOOO-KNEE-EE,” I say. He grins — and we sing his name together. Perhaps next match the kid will leave his Real Madrid shirt at home.
Jenny Lee is married to a Leeds United fan
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