The Ugly Truth About the Beautiful Game

Globalization, commercialization, and competition killed the romance of soccer—creating the best competition in the world in the process.

A Football or soccer ball on a pedestal bleeding out the black pentagrams
Ben Hickey

The philosopher Roger Scruton once wrote that people become conservative as they experience loss; the sense of passing, of dying and death. Loss gives them a love of things as they are, a desire to hold, to protect, to conserveeven if all attempts to do so come too late.

I thought of this recently when I found myself in the absurd situation of feeling sad that a multimillionaire French soccer player had decided against joining the world’s most successful club. Why did I care that Kylian Mbappé had decided to stay with Paris Saint-Germain rather than sign a contract with Real Madrid, a club I do not support or even particularly like (and that is in fact playing against my favorite team, Liverpool, in the biggest game in world soccer today)?

Because his decision signaled the end of something, and with it came an understanding of that something’s passing. That thing was the old hierarchy, the romance and glory, of European soccer, or rather my naive belief in it.

European soccer, like European culture, is governed by a class structure. Each country has its elite clubs that, together, form a sort of pan-European aristocracy—clubs that, traditionally, have been able to acquire the sport’s best players in their quest for the ultimate prize: the Champions League. Formerly known as the European Cup, this is European soccer’s Super Bowl, the biggest club match of the year.

European soccer clubs, unlike American sports franchises, cannot switch cities but are rooted where they are, representing not simply their locality, but often also certain ideas about their communities—class, identity, or religion. At this year’s English cup final, for example, Liverpool fans booed Britain’s national anthem, protesting the country’s political establishment, which they blame—correctly—for appalling abuses of power in the 1980s. (The police wrongly held Liverpool fans responsible for a 1989 stadium disaster in which 97 people died.) Liverpool believes itself to be a nonconformist, radical city, somehow distinct from the rest of England. Its rival for the Champions League, Real Madrid, meanwhile, literally is the Spanish establishment, symbolized with a crown on its crest, supported by the royal family, and representing Spain.

This is European soccer—or, at least, an idealized version of it: clubs that represent something greater than themselves, offering communities narratives to coalesce around. The reality is less romantic. Liverpool supporters might decry the political and economic establishment, but their club has long been part of the soccer establishment—it and Real Madrid have won 19 Champions League titles (or its predecessor tournaments) between them. The club has been further revitalized under the ownership of an American billionaire, John Henry, who joined a host of other foreign owners attracted by the potential of the English Premier League, the most commercially successful in the world. Liverpool may despise Margaret Thatcher, but the club is a kind of turbocharged Thatcherite success story.

Liverpool is far from alone. Just to compete in European soccer today, you need either a billionaire owner or a global commercial operation generating huge revenues that can be pumped back into the team, and this shift has expanded the ranks of the sport’s elite. European soccer became more and more commercialized in the 1980s and ’90s, but everything changed in 2003 when Chelsea—not part of the traditional European elite—was bought by the Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, instantly becoming a superclub in terms of wealth. Then, in 2008, an investment company with close links to Abu Dhabi’s royal family bought Manchester City, instantly transforming a team that had been in England’s third tier barely a decade earlier into the world’s richest club. Three years later, Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund bought Paris Saint-Germain, known everywhere as PSG. Since the takeover, PSG—whose founding in 1970 leaves it extraordinarily young among the classes of Europe’s elite—has gone on a spending binge, breaking the transfer-fee world record twice as well as signing perhaps the greatest player of all time, Lionel Messi.

More recently, soccer’s traditional order seemed to be reimposing itself, as Real Madrid courted—and appeared to have persuaded—PSG’s star player, Mbappé, to swap clubs when his contract expired this summer. Unlike in American sports, European soccer superstars do not necessarily make it to the end of their contract, instead using their internal leverage to be “sold” from one club to another, before agreeing to a new contract with their new club. By waiting until he became a “free agent,” Mbappé drove up his value, playing off his two suitors. Last weekend, to the shock of the soccer world, he publicly rejected Real Madrid to sign a three-year contract extension with PSG, unveiling his decision in an elaborate LeBron James–style decision ceremony in Paris.

Mbappé’s choice symbolized more than one player’s preference. It marked a shifting order in European soccer, an order that has been revolutionized by soccer’s transformation from a continental sport and plaything of its own continental elite into a globalized entertainment product and plaything of a global elite. PSG is not a historic club; it plays in a weak league and has never won Europe’s premier competition. Unlike Real Madrid, it is not part of European soccer’s royalty. But PSG now has deeper pockets than Real Madrid, allowing the club to pay Mbappé just over $100 million as a signing-on fee alone, plus an extra $150 million in salary spread over three years, making him the highest-paid soccer player in the world.

His decision to accept such an extraordinary offer is understandable. But it has caused apoplectic fury in Real Madrid, a club used to getting its own way. The Spanish capital’s leading sports newspaper has accused Mbappé of a lack of class in turning the club down. The Spanish league itself threatened to sue PSG for the “scandalous” contract that, it said, was wrecking the “economic ecosystem of European football” by allowing one club to offer exorbitant contracts despite enormous financial losses, subsidized by the wealth of a sovereign state. (Though European soccer does not have salary caps like American sports leagues, clubs on this side of the Atlantic are supposed to ensure that they remain profitable, thus in theory ruling out the possibility of offering all of the best players in the world large contracts.)

The great irony is that of all the clubs in European football, it is Real Madrid that PSG most keenly resembles. Real Madrid first created a team of galácticos in the early 2000s, using its financial muscle to sign an array of superstars with the hope of blitzing the opposition on and off the pitch, winning trophies while creating the sport’s most desirable commercial brand, matching American franchises such as the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, and Los Angeles Lakers, which were, back then, bigger and more profitable than their soccer counterparts. And Real Madrid was also found to have received illegal state aid from Spanish authorities.

Despite all this, I still feel sad about Mbappé’s decision, just as I felt sad when Real itself started its boorish galáctico era, when Manchester City was bought by Emirati royals, and when Newcastle United, also in England, was bought by a consortium that included Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Each of these events changed the nature of European football, unmooring an old order that was itself ridiculous and unfair, but now seems simpler and more romantic. (This is an order, we should remind ourselves, in which the German league title has been won by its biggest club for each of the past 10 years; the Italian league title by one of its big three for the past 20 years; and the Spanish league title by one of its big three every year since 2003. In England, the new order is dominated by Manchester City, which has won four of the past five titles.) Even the era preceding this one that I look back to and glorify in my own mind was surely no less corrupt or innocent: Blackburn Rovers won the Premier League bankrolled by a local millionaire, and AC Milan was unstoppable, funded by Italy’s richest man, Silvio Berlusconi.

Deep down, there’s something about sport that reveals people’s natural conservatism. The experience of living through the decline of great players and great teams brings an acute sense of the passing of time and of loss—something you don’t get so obviously with states or empires, which take longer to fall. This is why documentaries about Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls continue to be watched by millions, and why TikTok seems to constantly offer me clips of old English Premier League players reminiscing about the good old days. These are all reminders of a more innocent age in one’s own life.

Scruton wrote that ever since the Paris riots of 1968, he had been a conservative. To him, the destruction on display then was a reminder that European culture was “a source of consolation and a repository of what we Europeans should know.” He was talking about Hegel and Dostoyevsky, not European soccer sagas. Still, the point remains that conservatism seeks to alleviate a sense of loss but ultimately cannot—because it is really about conserving the memory of a bygone time.

I wish Mbappé had chosen romance, to compete against the legacy of Real Madrid’s historic dominance and not just against soccer’s present. But why should he? The soccer world, which seems to share my instinct, is asking Mbappé to conserve something that has already gone. His decision is just a confirmation of what has been lost, not the cause of its death. Globalization, commercialization, and competition did that—creating the best sports competition in the world, which I will tune in to watch with my friends. We will cheer on Liverpool, and hope to defeat those horrible elitists from Real Madrid.