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Massie: Why Soccer Fans Are Cheering For Hank Paulson

Alex Massie is a Scottish journalist who wrote about David Beckham for The New Republic and blogs at The Debatable Land.

Message from Manchester, England to the United States government: Thanks, lads. Thanks for bailing-out AIG. Thanks for saving Manchester United, the world's wealthiest soccer club for most of the past decade, millions of dollars a year. Jolly decent of you. 

AIG, you see, pays around $25 million a year to be United's shirt sponsor, a sum that now appears to be guaranteed by the American taxpayer. Expect Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson to tell Americans: "We are all Manchester United supporters now."

Actually, Manchester United may matter more to AIG than the insurance giant does to the football club. Even in these chastening times, United would easily find another sponsor. AIG would struggle to find a brand as useful as United for promoting the company, especially in rapidly expanding Asian markets. 

Of course, United are also owned by Americans. The Glazer family--who also run the Tampa Bay Buccaneers--bought England's biggest club in 2005 in a deal, backed by three New York hedge funds, that valued United at $1.5 billion and left the club more than $ billion in debt. 

Still, if taxpayers are going to sponsor a soccer tem, they might as well sponsor a successful club. British taxpayers can only envy our American counter-parts. You have Manchester United, champions of Europe and the world's biggest football brand. We have Newcastle United, a shambolic laughing-stock that hasn't won a championship since 1927. 

Newcastle are sponsored by the UK's leading mortgage seller, Northern Rock, which was nationalized in February after the biggest run on a British bank in more than 100 years. 

Other clubs are also feeling the pinch. West Ham United's shirt sponsor, a travel company called XL Holidays, went bust last week, while newly-promoted West Bromwich Albion haven't even been able to find a sponsor. 

So suddenly, the fate of shirt sponsors is being seen as a canary in the coalmine, doomed to be among the first casualties of a poisonous economic atmosphere. Northern Rock in February, AIG this month: Which country's taxpayers will be the next to subsidize an English soccer team? 

When the Premier League boasted about being the "world's league" I doubt this was quite what they had in mind.

--Alex Massie