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The Beautiful Game’s Ugly Speculators

Or, there is no ethical soccer under capitalism

In early February, Manchester City, a soccer team from the industrial city in the northwest of England, scored a goal against London team Arsenal. Actually, they scored three goals, but one in particular stood out—star striker Sergio Aguero’s second of the game, at the end of the first half, making the score 2-1 Manchester. Aguero, who earns at least $330,000 every week, did not actually have very much to do: a series of inventive passes left the Arsenal defenders disoriented and in disarray, and Aguero tapped the ball into the back of the net under no pressure at all. It was a beautiful sequence of play, exemplary of Manchester City’s snake-bite style—cold, coiled strength unleashed in a flash, with precision and venom.

Meanwhile, SWAT teams from three Florida sheriff’s offices (as well as members of the New York City Police Department) were preparing to compete alongside local police in Dubai as part of an international SWAT challenge. The trip was subsidized by the United Arab Emirates Interior Ministry; Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Emirati royal family and deputy prime minister of the UAE, owns Manchester City. A few weeks after City’s match against Arsenal, at the 2019 International Defense Exhibition in Abu Dhabi, the UAE announced roughly $5.5 billion in weapons contracts, $1.5 billion of which were won by the U.S. firm Raytheon alone; this latter figure, incidentally, is almost exactly how much Manchester City’s players are worth on the transfer market. (Arsenal’s, in comparison, are worth $699 million.) Many of the weapons from those contracts will likely be deployed in Yemen, where 60,000 people have been killed in the last two years and 14 million are on the brink of starvation, thanks in no small part to intervention by the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

Luckily for the Emiratis, they have a very successful football team. “For today’s image-conscious billionaire,” Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg write in their new book The Club, “a Premier League soccer team [is] a must-have accessory.” (Manchester City and the UAE are not breaking new ground here: General Franco’s foreign minister, Fernando María Castiella y Maíz, once described Real Madrid as “the best embassy we have ever had.”)

There’s a lot that goes into transforming what were once working-class institutions into global commodities.

But owning a Premier League team is about more than image rehabilitation. In a quarter of a century, the combined revenue of the twenty teams in the Premier League increased by 2,500 percent, and the value of those clubs increased by 10,000 percent, from around $100 million in 1992 to $15 billion in 2017. How this came to be—or, as their subtitle puts it, How the English Premier League Became the Wildest, Richest, Most Disruptive Force in Sports—is the focus of Robinson and Clegg’s book. (The short answer is: television.) Two British sports journalists for the Wall Street Journal, Robinson and Clegg are at their best when detailing the interpersonal drama of a series of increasingly rich men—and they are indeed overwhelmingly men—vying for control of a league and an industry they believed could make them even richer: making alliances and breaking them, pursuing shared material interests even as the teams they own compete on the field, and creating the hyper-accelerated spectacle that is English soccer today.

There’s a lot, both big and small, that goes into transforming what were once working-class institutions into global commodities. Arsenal’s former vice-chairman David Dein, for example, is obsessed with toilets—specifically, the toilets that fans piss in during soccer games. He spent years trying to improve the experience of going to the bathroom during a match at Arsenal’s old Highbury stadium, and he finally saw his vision of more urinals and a longer half-time break become reality after coordinating a bond scheme to charge season ticket holders to raise the funds for a lavish renovation—only to ditch the digs a little over a decade later for the far the much larger Emirates stadium. “That was my calling,” he says in The Club. “If they’re drinking beer and Coca-Cola and coffees and teas beforehand, they’ve got to be able to go at halftime.”

At least as interesting as Robinson and Clegg’s psychological portraits of piss-obsessed executives are their incursions into the soccer-entertainment-industrial complex (including but not limited to the consistently absurd British soccer press), which is peripheral to the sport itself but key to its promotion and consumption. “We’re not a football club, we’re actually a sports entertainment media company,” one former Manchester City executive says. “So we must create content. We must provide events, we must create shows, we must create drama. And we must be part of the news, front page and back page, in every way. Am I competing with the other football club down the road, Manchester United, or am I competing with Walt Disney, with Amazon?” This is a little bit of an overstatement—the three most valuable clubs in the world (Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona) were worth $12.27 billion combined in 2018, compared to Walt Disney’s valuation at $190 billion and Amazon’s at nearly $1 trillion—but it illustrates how the people who run the league, and the clubs it comprises, think about their business. It also represents an enormous departure from what people traditionally thought football clubs were for in the first place. As Robinson and Clegg write,

Only in the latter part of English soccer’s 150-year history did the idea occur to anyone that a football club should be run like a business. Until the 1980s, the game’s origins as a loosely affiliated collection of working men full of amateur ideals had taught most club directors to abhor the idea of operating a team for profit. And, indeed, to reject the very idea that the running of a soccer team might in any way mirror the operation of the factories, mines, and foundries where the original players spent their weeks slaving away. This sentiment was enshrined by the Football Association in the nineteenth century in what came to be widely known as Rule 34, a regulation that prevented directors from drawing salaries and limited any dividends paid out to shareholders. Owners were supposed to be custodians above all.

The shift away from this mindset has coincided with deep changes in the structure of the English, European, and global economies—changes that Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski argue in their book Soccernomics have shaped the development of the sport and the teams that play it. Historically, European countries’ biggest clubs (except for Real Madrid) came from provincial, industrial cities: Barcelona, Liverpool, Turin, Munich, Glasgow, Dortmund, Marseille. “Peasants arrived from the countryside, leaving all their roots behind,” Kuper and Szymanski write.  “Needing something to belong to in their new cities, they chose soccer. That’s why, in all these places, the soccer clubs arose soon after the factories.” In the United Kingdom, cities in the industrial north dominated the first decades of English soccer, but financialization and globalization are shifting power slowly but inevitably back towards the banking capital of London, whose flush clubs are more able to consistently compete at elite levels.

This shift has had more than geographic consequences. It not only contributed to the creation of the Premier League in 1992 in the first place, but it also helps to explain the growing hegemony of statistics and data in soccer—both in the acquisition, development, and training of the athletes, and in popular analysis. “The game is drowning in information,” Kuper and Szymanski note elsewhere. “Every day, data analysts collect ever more information about every player’s move on the field, on the training ground, and even in bed—they know how well he slept last night.”

Capitalism, in other words, finds ways to make managers of us all.

Players are workers—extremely skilled and highly waged, but workers nonetheless—and the explosion of biometrics and data collection represents a new stage in the development of scientifically managed workforces. The story of modern soccer, then, goes something like this: a capitalist (usually one from another country altogether) spends an enormous amount of money to buy a football club, and then spends even more buying new players, paying their wages, or, say, upgrading the stadium’s toilets. The club itself is now an asset, as are the players. In order to increase their value, a plethora of metrics are applied to players’ performances in practice and in games, measuring everything that there is to be measured—and then conjuring even more categories and more metrics, in search of the slightest advantage.

“Today there is too much control everywhere,” said Mauricio Pochettino, Tottenham Hotspur’s Argentine manager, during a press conference a few seasons ago. (He was commenting on his players’ behavior during a contentious match with Chelsea.) “It’s true that we have to show an example of football these days but it’s also true that life now is about what you are doing with your phone, the internet and so on. You are not always free. You are in a box and football is the same. . . . I felt more freedom when I was a player. There weren’t so many consequences. Today, with every action, you are in the spotlight. It’s too difficult now to show your real emotions. It’s a different era and we need accept that and control everything. We cannot behave with freedom.” The phenomenon of control that Pochettino is referring to has not only influenced managers’ tactics and players’ behavior, but supporters’ consumption habits as well. The new language of the sport filters out to fans, who imbibe the logic of capital and reproduce it in their obsession over obscure statistics, tactical formations, and even video games like FIFA. Capitalism, in other words, finds ways to make managers of us all.

Ironically, this is all founded on play, passion, and spontaneity—that which is extremely chaotic and resistant to capitalist rationalization. It is still moments of sublime beauty that make prophets and evangelists of soccer fans: fleeting and rare and all the more stunning for their scarcity, an example of super-human athletic prowess or a divinely inspired pass can still leave tens of thousands of people awed. The sports-entertainment-industrial complex not only commodifies that experience, but seeks to make it replicable over and over again, to broadcast it so that those thousands transfixed in the stadium seats and stands become millions transfixed in bars and on couches. The project that the men who sought to transform the Premier League undertook was not simply to make money, but to sanitize something that is constantly covering itself in mud, blood, and beer—or urine. With their ill-gotten gains, they fund the flourishing of sporting genius and hope that no one notices, too entranced by mesmeric movements on the field.