Liverpool and Manchester United Are Nothing Without the Fans

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Two sporting cultures have just waged a quickfire war over the “beautiful game” of soccer, with the U.S.-inspired model of a closed-franchise championship for Europe’s elite football clubs losing out to the European attachment to giving the little guy a sporting chance through promotion and relegation.

Just three days after 12 of the biggest clubs in England, Spain and Italy announced the establishment of the European Super League — which would have spared the likes of Real Madrid and Liverpool the hassle of slogging through qualifying games against minnows, or sometimes missing out altogether — their plan lies in ruin. All six English clubs involved backed away after a torrent of criticism from fans, players, managers, politicians and even royalty. Prince William, heir-but-one to the British throne, rejoiced when the idea fell apart.

But beyond the passions and aversions of football fans, this has been an unusual and telling story. It’s rare in the era of global sporting capitalism for a passionate national fanbase — dismissed as “legacy supporters” by the billionaires and investment funds that run many big teams — to stop a consolidated push to bring in more cartel-like practices. The buying power over talent wielded by the elite clubs usually trumps the interests or objections of fans who lack a voice or ownership rights. (Fan-controlled German clubs tellingly spurned invitations to join the ESL.) 

One reason why the story has reached beyond sporting devotees in the U.K. is a sense that this is tale in which the citizens of “somewhere” — people with strong allegiances to a particular place, local ties and a suspicion of big business — triumphed over the “citizens of anywhere,” those who are footloose, cosmopolitan in outlook and as much at home in the best seats in a stadium in Milan as Manchester. Or indeed are happy to express their fandom by watching games on TV in the U.S. and Asia, and buy the merchandise. 

This distinction was first drawn by the commentator David Goodhart to explain why socially conservative Brits outside the big cities voted for Brexit in such large numbers, to the horror of their college-educated, urban counterparts.

It also explains why the Super League got an immediate “red card” (in his own words) from Boris Johnson, a prime minister who hails from the elite “Anywhere” classes — U.S. born, Brussels educated, and friendly to the class of hypermobile capitalists who own the clubs. But it was Johnson who led the Brexit campaign to victory. Free-market ideology was never going to stop him intervening in a great populist cause like soccer, especially when it distracts from a Tory cronyism scandal.

The links between clubs and local communities are valuable, and electorally significant. In the U.S., owners can uproot their teams and move them from city to city. Johnson’s continued success relies on keeping the support of former Labour voters in the old industrial heartlands of England, struggling with transitions to a modern economy, anxious about their futures, but with a strong sense of regional and local identity often bound up with football clubs.

Foreign ownership is tolerated by these fans as long as it brings results. But the fragility of that alliance was demonstrated by the ferocity of the response to the ESL. There was even an outbreak of proto-Marxist sloganeering — “Created by the poor, stolen by the rich” — on the banners displayed outside Manchester United’s ground.

If the mighty owners were so quick to vacate the pitch, apologizing for the misguided revolution attempt and the resentments caused, it’s because the response of the “Somewheres” resonated with politicians and major sports broadcasters. Johnson even threatened rushed new legislation and work permit bans for foreign players playing in the ESL.

It’s a reminder that while the power of capital to shape modern institutions is huge, it’s not unstoppable.

The rebel clubs are unlikely to give up. Vast global TV audiences, they argue, would prefer to watch giants like Real Madrid play Bayern Munich or Liverpool every year, rather than facing comparative minnows. But this week’s chastening experience suggests the rematch will have to be fought with far greater acknowledgement of the views of those “legacy fans.”

I write as someone whose team, Arsenal, would have gained from the new league, but I cheered its collapse with my red and white scarf. The club was invited to join the ESL even though its performance under U.S. owner Stan Kroenke has been woeful. Despite its illustrious past and lucrative following in Asia and other overseas markets, “we” languish in ninth place in the English Premier League and won’t qualify for one of the four top spots that guarantee a place in the existing elite European competition, the UEFA Champions League. 

Money has always been a crucial ingredient in footballing success. In his definitive book, “Money and Football: A Soccernomics Guide,” Stefan Szymanski of Michigan University calculates that “the relationship between spending and performance approaches perfection; 90% of the variation in the average league position of a club over time is explained by the amount [spent] relative to the other teams.”

But it’s the hopes of the other 10% that matter to anyone who loves the game. The odds were 5,000-1 when Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016. Little Uruguay (population 3.6 million) has twice lifted the World Cup. Football greatness is usually restricted to the few, but the sport is nothing without the romance and drama of the underdog. 

This week’s grudge match between boardroom bosses and football fans has been a victory for the “Somewhere” view that the chance to win and the spoils of success shouldn’t accrue only to those who already have a disproportionate amount of good fortune. It’s a lesson for the denizens of “Anywhere” to take to heart, in politics and on the pitch.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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