How America Ruined Soccer

Plans to form a breakaway tournament highlight a political moment.

A slingshot with a soccer ball
Getty / The Atlantic

When I was a teenager, my hometown football—soccer—team was bought by a local businessman who began his career as a safecracker, became friends with Donald Trump, and ended his days broke and in jail. George Reynolds, who died last week, lived an Englishman’s version of the American dream: He got rich, bought a local institution, then went bankrupt.

For a moment, his ownership sparked a kind of giddy hope among the club’s supporters, who were sold promises of the big time. Reynolds, who made his money selling chipboard kitchen worktops, had bought the club, Darlington F.C., on a whim and pledged to take it from a lower English-football division all the way to the top, to compete in the Premier League and the holy grail of European football: the Champions League. To do this, he sold the club’s tiny grounds in the town’s center and built a 30,000-seat stadium on its outskirts, which he named the Reynolds Arena. He would attend games in a knee-length fur coat, rising from his seat to wave to the fans chanting his name.

The dream quickly collapsed. Although a few thousand fans continued to loyally traipse out to the new stadium to support Darlington, they were surrounded by row after row of empty seats. The club was old, and had generations of loyal supporters, but the town was small. Soon enough, both the club and Reynolds folded under the absurdity of it all: The team literally went out of business and had to be started again from scratch. It now plays on grounds it shares with a local rugby club, while its old arena sits empty—a monument to hubris. After the club went bankrupt and was sold off in 2003, Reynolds was stopped by the police with £500,000 in cash in his car and jailed for money laundering and tax evasion.

The whole sorry story is a testament to the problems of modern European football, but also to what makes it unique. The saga also helps explain the almost immediate furious reaction to yesterday’s declaration by 12 of the continent’s richest clubs that they will form a breakaway European Super League modeled on the American National Football League, one in which teams do not rise and fall between leagues, regardless of their fortunes on the field.

Reynolds’s vision was predicated on the nature of European football—which is rooted in geography, and history, and hierarchy. The fundamental truth of European football is that any club from any country can, in theory, keep winning its matches and end up in the top leagues, playing against the biggest teams in the world. For this to be possible, however, the opposite must also be the case: If the biggest teams lose enough games, they can fall down the pyramid of leagues and end up playing the likes of Darlington in front of a few thousand fans.

The new European Super League is an attempt to break free of this structure entirely. In this new competition, at least 12 clubs—including Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona—will form a new league that they cannot be kicked out of, no matter how badly they perform. They will play one another and share a new and large pool of revenues, separate from the national leagues of the countries where they were born and raised.

The proposal is the most seismic challenge to the European football model since its inception. It rips away the foundations of the whole edifice in an attempt to create a new superstructure. Within hours of its announcement, the plan was condemned by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron. National governing bodies that run the game in individual countries across Europe threatened to suspend clubs that joined from their domestic competitions, and to bar players for those clubs from representing their country.

It is a remarkable moment of European unity, intended and unintended. Yet in many ways, the very idea of a breakaway super league also points to the disconnect that helps explain Brexit and other so-called populist movements in Europe: the sense of powerlessness and rupture.

The attempted breakaway is being led in large part by the English, whose teams are the richest in the world. But while six of the participating clubs are from England, only one of them is owned by an English person. Three are owned by Americans (Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester United); one by a Russian oligarch who no longer lives in London (Chelsea); and one by a Middle Eastern statelet, Abu Dhabi (Manchester City). If anything, this English-led revolution is a consequence of the English Premier League’s extraordinarily successful globalization.

The owners of England’s grand old clubs do not want to risk their assets being relegated from the pinnacle of European competition should they perform badly. To avoid this, they are ripping the clubs from their homes. And what can ordinary fans do about it? Nothing.

This moment seems to represent an age. In the same way that fans have no real power over their clubs, what real power do today’s workers have over the multinational corporations they work for? A Japanese company can have more influence over the lives of its workers in North East England than does the government those workers elected.

The English Premier League is the richest, most successful soccer league in the world, in large part because it is the most open to the world’s money and markets. It may now die as a result—taking part of the soul of European soccer with it.