In English football, it doesn’t get much bigger than Manchester United vs. Liverpool. Unfortunately, today’s match between these titans had to be postponed because a protest by Man U fans turned into a mini-riot.
The fans were protesting against the Americans who own the club — the Glazer family. The protest wasn’t about the team’s performance. Arguably, United is having its best season since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager in 2013.
The protest was about the Glazer family’s obtuseness when it comes to English football and its seeming lack of regard for fans of the team and the sport. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the decision in late April to destroy English football by joining a new European super league.
Man U was one of six English clubs that agreed to join six non-English powerhouse teams in the new venture. The others were Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur. The move seems to have been spearheaded by the American owners of Manchester United and Liverpool. (Arsenal is also owned by an American, Chelsea by a Russian kleptocrat, and Man City by an Arab from the UAE. Tottenham, the only one the six under British ownership, probably joined the venture so as not to be left behind.)
The plan to break away was greeted with howls of protest from all quarters — so much so that it was scuttled (for now) the same week it was announced. But this wasn’t enough to mollify English fans. Even Chelsea supporters, probably the most cosmopolitan of the six fan bases, protested last week.
It’s easy to understand why. Imagine what the reaction would be in the U.S. if the New Yankees, New York Mets, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, San Francisco Giants, and Chicago Cubs broke away from MLB. It would be epic, but I doubt it would match the outrage in England over the attempt at a breakaway from the EPL.
Soccer may be a global game, for the English, it is tribal at root. Glitzy international matches — whether by clubs or the national team — aren’t what football is about in England. Liverpool fans relish the Merseyside derby against Everton (and why not, considering the Shite’s dominance in the fixture). Arsenal and Tottenham fans relish playing that annoying Cockney team, West Ham.
Sure, they also relish a Champions League semi-final against, say, Real Madrid or Juventus. But that’s because it’s a Champions League semi-final. They don’t relish playing these teams, with whom they have no rivalry, on a regular basis.
Nor is it just the derbies that English football fans relish. There’s a saying among EPL fans: “Yes, but can you do it on a cold rainy night at Stoke?” This is a reference to the fact that to succeed in the EPL, the glitzy English teams and glamorous European stars who play in England must do the business not just on big stages like Old Trafford and Anfield. They also have to get it done at provincial venues in very bad weather.
That’s why, during their protest last week, Chelsea fans reportedly carried signs saying, “we want our rainy night at Stoke.” The Glazers, John Henry (owner of Liverpool), and the other outsider owners want to take that away.
And why not? They don’t travel with supporters by bus or train to the Midlands or the South Coast. They don’t drink with fans in pubs before the matches. Thus, it’s doubtful that they understand what the game means in England.
Or, if they understand, they probably don’t care. They just want to squeeze more money out of the game. Like the protagonists in “The Treasure of Sierra Madre,” they struck gold. Like Fred C. Dobbs, they want all the gold for themselves.
No wonder Manchester United fans protested en masse today.
This isn’t to excuse the violence. Fueled by alcohol and perhaps by frustration at not being able to attend matches because of the pandemic, some fans, mostly youths, stormed Old Trafford and took on the police, reportedly injuring at least one officer. Fortunately, the Greater Manchester police force responded quickly and brought things under control before more mayhem could ensue.
But the protesters in Manchester and elsewhere have sent an unmistakable message to the foreign owners of the big English clubs: Don’t mess with our game.
The foreign owners will, I’m quite sure, try to mess with it again. But perhaps not for a while.