The two most successful teams in British soccer history face off in Manchester on Thursday. Liverpool versus Manchester United is the biggest rivalry in the Premier League: With the two stadiums just 28 miles apart, each clash between the teams is anticipated for months, and this year was no different, except... they were really supposed to do it last week, until a massive, unprecedented protest caused the match to be postponed.
There have been protests before, but this one was different because the crowd broke into the stadium and invaded the pitch. To a football fan, the pitch is the closest thing to a holy place.
“It’s like the Pope's pulpit,” said Kevin Baxter, a sportswriter for the Los Angeles Times. So, Manchester United fans knew exactly what they were doing when about 200 of them broke into their beloved stadium, Old Trafford, last week and stormed the pitch. They broke barriers and climbed gates while one picked up and threw a camera tripod and others grabbed corner flags, causing the postponement of the much-hyped game against Liverpool, which was due to be played in an empty stadium because of COVID-19 restrictions. By the end, clashes between supporters and police resulted in one man arrested and six officers being injured.
United fans had wanted to send a message.
“It worked,” said Chris Davison, a fan of Arsenal, which gives him a natural antipathy to United. “I don’t condone any violence which took place… but in terms of the fans’ protest and making themselves heard, postponing a football game–fair play to them, I take my hat off to them.”
While cameras were trained on the protesters inside, thousands upon thousands more stood outside, chanting beloved team songs and letting off flares in their historic Newton Heath colors of gold and green.
Despite a century-long rivalry between Liverpool and Manchester United—teams which represent two of the most powerful industrial cities in the North—their fans have a lot in common.
The hideously botched attempt to create the now-infamous European Super League (ESL) has followers of the English Premier League (EPL) going after a somewhat new, and easy target: Americans. Specifically, billionaire American owners of EPL clubs that fans believe are a result of, and complicit in, the ongoing “Americanization” of football. At least nine out of the 20 teams in the EPL are fully or partially owned by Americans.
The actions last week at Old Trafford were spurred by widespread discontent and disdain for the football club’s current owners–the Glazers, a wealthy American family that also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The trio of American brothers, Joel, Bryan, and Avram Glazer, now run the club after late patriarch Malcolm Glazer took over United back in 2005, a date that coincided with the club’s decline.
“It’s been very, very negative,” says Mike Parrott of the United Muppetiers, a supporters page for Manchester United. “They’ve turned it from a football club into a business.”
Anger has been brewing for 16 years. The Glazers have been relentlessly criticized for their perceived disinterest in the team (arguably the biggest and most successful club in British football), a lack of communication with supporters, neglecting the stadium and associated venues, and—perhaps most glaring—putting United into major debt, to the tune of $643 million, whilst paying themselves—or should we say plundering—millions in dividends each year.
James Roades, also of the United Muppetiers, says there’s an expectation in English football “that you’re going to put money into the club, not take it out.” The Glazers, on the other hand, have “used [the club] as a cash cow… without putting anything back into it,” something he thinks “is really antipathetic to the grassroots foundation of football.”
Recent momentum for the #GlazersOut protests began with perhaps their most egregious mistake: signing up for the Super League, which lasted a meager 48 hours. For many, the surprise announcement was a slap in the face and a money-grabbing decision made by billionaire owners without so much as a dialogue or consultation with supporters, players, managers, and in some cases, even board members of their own clubs. Fans came out in universal condemnation, saying it would destroy the competition and culture of football globally.
Parrott says “[the Glazers] only ever had two press releases directly to the fans. The first one was when they bought the club, and the second one was a few weeks ago with the European Super League.”
For British and European fans, this kind of behavior is unheard of and unacceptable. The lack of transparency and disregard for supporters may not necessarily be exclusive to American owners but it’s largely become synonymous with them.
“Americans are people with a lot of money and no appreciation for what they have,” Baxter describes of the perception among most fans. “People don’t get the idea that Americans are in it for the right reason, so they become easy targets.”
The stereotype might be unfair to Americans, but as Roades says, “it doesn’t help that the American owners have been some of the worst owners in the sport.”
The Glazers aren’t the only Americans in this spotlight of fan hatred. Fenway Sports Group, the American conglomerate led by John W. Henry and Tom Werner that bought Liverpool Football Club in 2010, faced backlash when they took part in the failed Super League plans then refused a $4 billion bid to buy the team. Fans organizing under the hashtag #FSGOut congregated outside Anfield Stadium demanding they take the offer and leave.
Then there’s Stan Kroenke, who owns Arsenal Football Club, as well as a number of American sports teams such as the recently relocated Los Angeles Rams in the NFL and the Denver Nuggets in the NBA. After an exceedingly disappointing season, fans have gone online to express their contempt for the American owner and his son Josh, who has been put in charge of the club, citing arguments almost identical to those against the Glazers. One scroll through Arsenal’s social media accounts show a chorus of #KroenkeOut hashtags.
“They don’t even speak to the fans,” says Zito Madu, an Arsenal fan and freelance writer, or even give any type of “lip service” in terms of taking opinions or justifying decisions. “The Kroenkes don’t do that. They don’t care to be held accountable. They’re just not justifiable to anybody in the same way that the previous administrations used to be.”
After the ESL announcement, Arsenal fans protested outside the Emirates Stadium and demanded the Kroenkes, who first bought shares in the team in 2007 then completed their takeover in 2018, sell the club to someone like Spotify CEO and Swedish billionaire Daniel Ek, an Arsenal fan backed by Arsenal legends—and who seems to actually care about the team.
“Without fans, football would be nothing,” Davison says, railing against the “out-of-touch” Kroenkes and their “nonexistent” presence at the team in North London. “Quite ironic really, without fans, Kroenkes wouldn't have a football club and wouldn’t have a business to run.”
Davison, like so many, doesn’t like viewing the team he has supported from a young age as a business, and claims that he doesn’t know a single Arsenal fan that supports the Kroenkes owning the club.
“You associate class, tradition, respect with Arsenal Football Club,” says Davison. Before the Kroenkes, Arsenal was run by members of the same families who had been on the board since the 1920s and ’30s. “Their famous motto is ‘Victory grows through harmony.’ The Kroenkes have shown no harmony, no class, no respect.”
Especially after the difficulties posed by the coronavirus, fans like Davison see the bum-rush by Arsenal owners to join a lucrative project like the Super League, even after laying off 55 staff members during the pandemic (including the beloved mascot, Gunnersaurus) as akin to “destroying football,” “destroying merit” and “destroying the legacy” of their team. (Stan Kroenke, by the way, is worth more than $8 billion.)
“They should just stick to their American franchises,” he says.
Except it seems pretty evident that the American franchise system is the direction some of the more traditionally run teams in the European leagues, namely Real Madrid boss and ESL mastermind Florentino Perez, are looking to go. Why? It all comes down to the money.
“What they wanted was an American style of sports, which is a closed league, where the owners don’t suffer anything from bad management… [They] wanted to insulate themselves from any type of consequence,” says Madu. “The idea is also supported by all the other billionaires who are participating in it because what they really want is to be able to make a lot of money and never have to suffer.”
Despite being European-led, the willingness of three American owners to jump on the ESL bandwagon allowed a reductionist tale to dominate, which assumed that Americans, being American, are directly responsible for the looming ‘Americanization’ of the game. Like many American sports, the ESL would have put in place permanent fixtures among the 15 “biggest” teams in Europe and abolished relegation and promotion–despite some of those teams, like the aforementioned Arsenal, performing terribly during the regular domestic season.
Football thrives on competition–and the threat of relegation requires teams to get better every year. That’s not widely expected in American sports, where teams can be habitually and embarrassingly awful, yet have no one to really answer to and suffer no real financial consequences.
But the lust for money in football isn’t the fault of new American owners. Nor is the ongoing ‘Americanization’ of the game. In fact, the idea of a Super League has been around for decades. And some associated with leagues like Serie A of Italy and Ligue 1 in France have gone out of their way to recruit American owners, Baxter tells me, precisely because of the investment they’re able to provide. Madu says football is practically a “billionaires’ playground.” Despite football’s connection to working class culture, fans have accepted ultra wealthy owners so long as their football team gets a “good billionaire” who cares about the team—which means less “penny-pinching” Americans.
As if to prove the point, United’s players will take to the pitch at Old Trafford for the delayed tie against Liverpool knowing that the Premier League title is now beyond their reach.
Since last week’s protest United's hometown rivals Manchester City—long dismissed as just “noisy neighbours”—have secured their sixth Premier League title in 11 years. City were bought in 2008 by an Emirati sheikh, who has plowed more than $2 billion into the club while the Glazers have been siphoning off as much as they can from United.