I’ve always been fascinated by the difference in sports fandom here in the colonies and abroad. Specifically, how soccer fans still feel like they have some control and say in how their clubs and sport is run (and in Germany they most certainly do). While here we have a more just-take-it mentality. Perhaps it’s in the ground-up formation of leagues and teams that soccer has, whereas here it’s always been top-down, the leagues themselves deciding where the teams go. It’s almost certainly more layered than that, but that’s probably the heart of it.
There was no better example of that then spring 2021’s aborted and calamitous Super League trial. Fans, especially those in England, immediately were sickened by the very idea, literally took to the streets, and the whole idea collapsed in a day or two. Manchester United fans postponed a match against their biggest rival Liverpool just a couple weeks later with protests and a pitch invasion, such has been their disgust with the Glazer family’s ownership that the Super League was the rotten cherry on top of. We’ll get back to them in a sec.
Do you ever remember something like that on these shores? I pick on Blackhawks fans a lot, but hey, families are the ones we bitch about the most. While thier attendance declined this season in the wake of their coverup of a coach sexually assaulting Kyle Beach in 2010, that attendance could have declined simply because the team was ass. Even after Rocky Wirtz berated reporters in the spring for having the temerity to ask what steps the team had taken to assure nothing like that would ever happen again, there were no protests outside the United Center.
And we shouldn’t single out Hawks fans. You don’t see people storming FedEx Field or the Commanders’ practice facility to oust Daniel Snyder, even if he has proven to be a candidate for worst person in the world. The Pirates have been a joke for almost all of Bob Nutting’s tyrannical reign, and they’ve mostly just given up. At least they’ve spoken in the only way we know how, by not going to the games. And yet MLB has created a safety net for fuckwads like Nutting where that doesn’t even matter. Tom Ricketts borked over the most historic World Series winner in baseball’s history, and yet there aren’t any pitchforks on Clark Street (being a Chicago sports fan is great). This list could go on and on.
There seems to be an acceptance that there’s not much we can do, and even if we thought there was, the entire society has been so badly beaten down and controlled by billionaires that there’s no way we could ever get them to care. Fuck, at least in MLB and the NFL it wouldn’t really matter if we stopped showing up, given the other sources of income those teams have. That used to be our only weapon.
Which is a lesson that Man United chairman Richard Arnold was trying to instill to some supporters at a pub near his house this past week. Y’see, some United fans had planned to protest outside of his home, in the overall movement to make it clear how much they hate the Glazers and especially how the team has been run for 10 years or so now that has seen them drop out of Europe’s elite (whatever their inclusion in the Super League might say). Arnold got wind of this, and went to the pub they were convening at (of course they were convening at the pub) and interacted with them. It was all actually pretty adult, a conversation more than a screaming match, though Arnold asked to not be recorded and ended up being so and watching it spread all over social media.
It was the kind of sitdown with a team’s executive that fans here would kill for and never get outside of the most managed and staged settings. Arnold was forthright about just how bungled the running of United has been, not hiding from the fact that the club “had burned through one billion pounds” on players who mostly did jack and shit for the team. He let slip some details on the team’s transfers this summer, notably Frenkie de Jong, but was clear that he only was in charge of telling his front office how much money there was to spend and not getting involved in team construction himself, a major problem under previous chairman Ed Woodward.
But Arnold did let the cat out of the bag, and highlighted the difference between fan attitude here and there. United supporters over the past year or two have targeted a host of sponsors to the club, either boycotting their products or badmouthing them on the internet in a Gamergate like fashion, hoping to drive them away from the club, and more importantly their money away from the club, to financially distress the whole operation to the point that the Glazers would be forced to sell. It’s something of a fantasy, but you can see the throughline at least. Arnold disabused them of that notion:
Arnold responded: “Does it really? You know what it was like in 2005. Pressure was put on the owners not to buy the club and they bought the club anyway. If you want to think of them that way, they’re rock hard.”
The fan interjected: “They don’t care, I understand that.”
Arnold said: “‘Don’t care’ is the wrong word, they’re not frightened of people.”
And that’s the crux of it. The Glazers have enough money to not care what the fans think, even if the fans are the lifeblood of the club, supposedly. And the fans may feel they can chase out the sponsors, but this is MANCHESTER UNITED. There will always be more sponsors, which is exactly why the Glazers bought the team in 2005. Whether the Glazers are geniuses or blithering morons (most would lean toward the latter), this is an operation that is basically too big to fail, though lord knows they’ve tried.
That’s still a sobering thing to hear for fans in the UK and probably around a lot of the world, where clubs aren’t all that far removed from being extensions of the communities and towns they sprang from. It’s wholly unfair to Arnold, who is a genuine fan as well as running the team, that he has to show the stones to talk to the fans while the Glazers hide somewhere in a Florida mansion when they’re the problem. But that’s also the job Arnold took.
You can’t help but wonder what English soccer will lose when fans feel they are completely helpless against owners like the Glazers. It’s a feeling we’ve known our entire lives and probably years longer, but that’s the difference in the atmospheres and feeling between American sports and sports elsewhere, isn’t it? It’s why we watch European soccer in greater numbers every year, or at least one reason. To at least witness, if not feel part of, something where the fans feel part of it. Not having it just bestowed upon us by a small group of uber-rich shit demons that would step on our tracheas for another $5 if given the chance.
Arnold certainly isn’t wrong and he’s only being honest. And there were only 12 fans or so in the pub. But that message got out, and the Glazers may think silence will be better than the protests they’ve been subjected to for a few years now. But apathy is worse than anger. On the flip side, the bet they made was that the passion that causes fans to organize protests and storm the stadium, a passion you won’t find here, would keep United a cash cow. They may slander the sponsors on websites but they’ll never not show up to Old Trafford. Come the opening of the Premier League season in August, you can be sure there will be 65,000 there.
Perhaps they’re just not as far along in understanding their passion will be used against them. Even if it’s United, it’ll be sad to watch them and so many more come to accept that. But it will happen.