I conquered Africa, with my Man Utd wristbands

Fill in the gap in the following well-known chant. "X* ** ** is the greatest team the world has ever seen." It's a strange chant, which you can hear being sung by the supporters of each of our 92 league clubs. Strange, because it doesn't rhyme and, for at least 99 per cent of our teams, it isn't remotely true; yet, I've heard fans from Carlisle to Colchester lustily belting it out as if they truly, sincerely, madly believe it.

It's a tribal chant, traditional grunting, received posturing, which nobody takes literally, and nobody stops to think about the words. A bit like "We hate Nottingham Forest, we hate [etc]". Now that is totally meaningless. I mean, who could muster the energy to hate Notts Forest? One of the most boring teams the world has ever seen, tra la. There is, however, one team that can make a claim to being the greatest the world has ever seen: Manchester United.

Bugger it. In an instant, I've lost 80 per cent of any possible readers. From Carlisle to Colchester, via Chelsea and Charlton, just the mention of Man U makes your average Brit fan not just switch off, but scream and shout: "Oh, not them again. Give us a break. The telly loves them; the papers love them; advertisers love them; even the refs love them (oh yes, they do). If Hunt is now going to slobber over them, that is the giddy limit."

They are not the world's greatest team. How can they be, when we can't even agree on the terms? Do you measure a club's greatness by the size of its crowds? In that case, Barcelona is miles ahead. Do you measure it in transfer fees, in who can pay most for a star player? In that case, there are about six clubs, in Italy and Spain, that have paid more. Man Utd, the club, is the richest on paper, now worth a billion pounds; but given that so much of its income is generated by merchandising, this is an unfair comparison. A club like Barcelona does not stoop to such vulgar, moneymaking methods, being too proud to sell its soul or shirts to sponsors.

Man U's best claim to world greatness rests mainly on armchair followers. Hard to compute how many there might be, but it's usually assumed that Man Utd has around six million fans in the UK, most of whom will never see the team in the flesh. They can't get tickets. Around the world, the estimate is 20 million fans, who can only ever follow them from afar.

In the past three weeks, I met two of these far-flung fans. First, there was Andy in Botswana. I was there visiting our daughter Caitlin who is married to Ron, and they've just had a baby called Ruby. (Since my return, I've met two babies called Ruby. Is it something in the air? Do mothers of a certain age, certain type, even 10,000 miles apart, get brainwashed into thinking they have chosen a totally original, unusual name?)

Last year, Caitlin happened to mention that the mechanic who services her car was a Man U fan. I sent her a signed photo of Dwight Yorke, whom Caitlin had never heard of, but she reported that Andy was now the most envied mechanic in Maun.

So when we set off for this trip, instead of taking beads for the natives, as we did in the old colonial days, I took some Man Utd sweatbands - you know, those things in your club colours that you put on your wrists. I was coming out of my dentist's in Archway and was passing a charity shop when I saw them in the window. A bargain at only 30p each. I bought the entire stock. Just the thing for any poor people I might meet in Africa, having had a baby up a tree, or homeless after the floods. Bound to cheer them up.

And it was true, more or less. Andy was knocked out, made up, over the moon when I gave him a Man Utd wristband. He would have serviced my car free for life, or longer, if only I'd had my car with me. He was aged about 40 and had fallen in love with Man Utd as a boy, at a time when they were not doing very well. He knew the name and life story of every player who had ever turned out for the club in the past 20 years. Now, you might say, well, Botswana, ex-Brit colonial-type country, once called Bechuanaland; even though it didn't have white settlers, you might expect some residual relationships with Britain. But we then moved on to Namibia, a country with no British connections, formerly a German colony.

We went on safari on the edge of the Namib Desert: absolutely awesome. Our guide up a sand dune was Isiah, a Namibian aged about 30. He grew up speaking his own tribal language, plus Afrikaans, then had to learn English ten years ago, when Namibia went independent. Yup. He was a Man Utd fan as well. In a Wilderness Safari camp, stuck out in the back of beyond, with all mod cons for the guests, the staff are isolated for three months at a time, with no radio, TV or newspapers. Following football, or showing your allegiance, is therefore rather limited.

But last year, while at home in Windhoek, Isiah did watch the Euro final, shouting all the way through for Man Utd. Sitting beside him was his younger brother - shouting for Bayern Munich. I presumed that this was due to the German connection, from their country's colonial past. But no, said Isiah, his brother's team is in fact Leeds Utd, and his favourite player is Lucas Radebe. Now that was interesting. It showed that the Man Utd syndrome we have noted in England - whereby every football fan who doesn't support Man Utd hates them - has spread round the world. There was a Namibian, who happened to be a Leeds supporter, reacting like any good Leeds supporter anywhere round the world: wanting Man Utd to get stuffed.

I gave Isiah two sweatbands, one for each wrist, just to annoy his brother next time he is home on leave.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy