THE BIGGEST MATCH IN THE FOOTBALL WORLD: Devouring a feast after a diet of thin, cold gruel

Nothing illustrates better the grip that English club football exercises on supporters across the globe than the clamour to see the FA Cup final. Independent correspondents shared the Wembley experience with fans from Sydney to Nairobi
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The Independent Online
Tickets had been sold out for the Cup Final a week in advance, so it was a capacity crowd that gathered early on Saturday morning at Summer's Bar in Arlington, just over the Potomac River from Washington DC.

Two hours before kick-off, at eight o'clock, the bar was the proverbial sea of red, Man United shirts outnumbering Liverpool ones by two to one. Two hundred fans jammed into two adjoining rooms, the bar itself and a diner with orange plastic seats. Twenty television screens, connected to a giant satellite dish on the roof, covered every possible angle, ensuring we all got our $20 worth of unimpaired viewing.

When the camera zoomed in on Cantona leading his team out of the Wembley tunnel, two- thirds of the crowd leapt to their feet, expressing their idolatry in exaggerated bows, prolonged applause or awestruck silence. The other third sat still, muttering obscenities. The rituals were reversed when Robbie Fowler's face came into view.

Three-quarters of the assembled devotees were British expats. The rest were locals, some of whom I have got to know over a long hard season at Summer's, an oasis in the spiritual desert of Washington, where I have been able to watch, I'd say, 80 per cent of Manchester United's games live this season.

I chatted to three of my American friends during the build-up to Saturday's game: Rob is a Manchester United fan, Lee a Liverpool fan and Hugh an interested observer.

The first time I met Rob was for the Newcastle-Manchester United game at St James' Park a couple of months ago. I was immediately astonished by how detailed his knowledge was of the team and its history.

He had considered opinions not only on the Cole-Scholes dilemma, but on Terry Cooke, one of the Fergie fledglings supposedly poised for glory in United's all-conquering reserve team. Rob reminisced fondly, too, about Stuart Pearson and Jimmy Greenhoff's goals against Liverpool in the 1977 Cup Final.

So he'd lived in England, had he? I asked him after a while. Oh no. He had been to Old Trafford once to watch the grass grow, but United was otherwise a distant passion he had been fostering since childhood, when he would listen at home to radio broadcasts of the Best-Charlton-Law games on the World Service.

As for Lee, he plays striker for a local park team every weekend during Washington's long hot summer. Robbie Fowler, his role model, sealed his fresh but raging love affair with Liverpool.

When I asked Hugh, also a regular player, who he was supporting, he said: "No one. I'm here for the art form, man".

The game was no thriller but Hugh, whom I sat next to, savoured every Cantona pass, every McManaman run, and every Keane interception with the hunger of a gourmand otherwise condemned to make do with the cold, thin gruel served up by DC United and the New York Metrostars.