Around the time they should have been handing out the team sheets on Sunday afternoon, angry fans penetrated English soccer’s greatest house of worship.
The English know how to riot. In riot terms, there wasn’t much to this protest at Old Trafford, home of Manchester United.
Someone climbed up in the netting behind goal. Someone else knocked him out of the net by kicking a ball at him. A few flares were set off. But most people just marched in one end of the stadium and out the other.
If not a riot, this was a seismic moment in global sport. This may have been the beginning of the insurrection.
A few hours later, the game that was to have been played Sunday evening, United vs. Liverpool, was postponed.
The cause of this tumult is the failed European Super League. That project would have put a stake through the heart of England’s domestic leagues. It was met by rage so hot from every corner of English society that the rebellious owners behind it stood down within hours.
It’s now clear that hasn’t solved the problem. If anything, the rage is growing.
They say no revolution can really get going until the middle class is on board. If the crowd of track-suited, puffer-vested yobs on the field were the working class, that would make the Sky Sports crew on hand to call the game the next tier up.
The most respected of their number is Gary Neville. The former Manchester United player is widely acknowledged as the best English-speaking analyst in the sport. What he says counts. And what Neville said was a very clear call to arms against Manchester United’s American owners, the Glazer family.
“[The Glazers] tried to implement something that would have damaged every single community in this country that’s got football at the heart of it. That’s why they’re dangerous.”
In a sense, the Glazers are Neville’s employers. They provide the product that his bosses repurpose for television. This wasn’t biting the hand that feeds you. It was getting hold of it and trying to tear off a few fingers.
“[United chairman] Joel Glazer saying that he wants to rebuild the trust with the football fans of this club? He never had the trust,” Neville spat. “He’s never spoken to them. He’s never said a word.”
In the usual course of things, this is a retail issue. It is an angry customer base complaining about the service they’ve been provided. That is an evergreen source of tension in many healthy sports business contexts.
Everyone in Chicago loved to hate the Cubs for a long time, so much so that the people who owned the club got monstrously rich.
But this level of concerted fury, stretching up and down the class structure, isn’t normal. This is the current mania for populist protest movements shifting into a sports context.
We are no longer talking about millionaire athletes taking a knee, or player unions forcing management to engage their political agendas. That’s an argument between elites.
This is a grassroots movement that only began to coalesce a week ago. It’s the people who pay the bills getting up in the faces of the people who collect them.
Maybe this was bound to happen when Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club in 2003.
Abramovich created a new aristocratic cliché – the preposterously wealthy sports hobbyist. He pumped billions of his own cash into Chelsea. Abramovich wasn’t in it for the money. He was in it for things the super-rich can’t buy – glory, celebrity, and the love of the common man.
This no-strings relationship – you make my soccer team great with your fortune; I pay nothing extra – was so odd, it started to make sense. Of course stupidly wealthy people were willing to half-bankrupt themselves in order to win a piece of silverware worth less than a used Honda Civic. The rich – they’re just weird that way.
Others piled into the market – American opportunists hoping to cash in on soccer’s global appeal, Middle Eastern royalty looking to polish their international image. Everyone had their own angle, but the rising tide of new money floated all boats. The Premier League had never been more visible or more watchable.
Then the full plan was revealed.
Of the six Premier League clubs that signed on to the Super League project, five are owned by foreigners (three Americans, an Emirati and a Russian).
That is where the generalized anger the Super League unleashed has found its focus – on super-rich foreigners in general, and the Americans, in particular.
It used to be cool to hate America. That tendency abated after the Wall came down, but it’s back, baby. It’s got so trendy even Americans hate America.
If you grew up in Manchester rooting for United, you’d probably hate the Glazers, too. They are businesspeople, not angel investors. Their primary interest is in growing the club’s share price.
If you grew up in Manchester rooting for City, you’d probably love that club’s Emirati owner, Sheikh Mansour. He controls a tenth of the world’s oil. Profit margins don’t concern him.
But the two together now represent something else to the sort of person who went marching through Old Trafford on Sunday. They are the people who pull the strings. The ones who make decisions not based on history, or community, or some shared sense of purpose. They aren’t here to help. They are in it for themselves. They have schemes the rest of us can’t fathom. Didn’t they just prove it?
This isn’t a war declared on this or that greedy owner. That sort of conflict is usual – even required – in sports.
This is a movement against internationalism. This goes well beyond who bought which forward last transfer window. This struggle is economic, political and philosophic. That is some highly flammable stuff. And the delivery system of the message – soccer – translates into every language.
The immediate issue can be solved, if not easily, by convincing the Glazers of the world to sell their majority stakes in English soccer clubs. Maybe that will be done in the coming months. It is beginning to seem like the only way to Band-Aid the problem.
But what about the larger issues that one greedy sports decision have pushed into the mainstream conversation? Things such as international money and its capricious influence on the lives of regular people; or who controls what part of the English cultural soul; or why the world seems so unfair sometimes, maybe even most of the time.
Once it’s got bad enough that people are out in the streets, you don’t get that back in the bottle so easily.