By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 22, 2021) US Soccer Players – John W Henry looked uncomfortable. Far more uncomfortable than we’re accustomed to seeing from people with his levels of wealth and power.
“I want to apologize to all the fans, supporters of Liverpool Football Club for the disruption I’ve caused over the past 48 hours,” he said at the start of a two-and-a-half-minute video, viewed more than 4 million times on the club’s social media channels in the wake of the stunning rise and speedy demise of The Super League. So far, he’s one of the only key figures involved in the abortive breakaway from the UEFA Champions League to explain themselves.
Henry’s message was always unlikely to appease the masses of fans enraged by his role in the breathless drama that threatened to upend European soccer as we know it. Henry and his counterparts Stan Kroenke at Arsenal, the Glazer family at Manchester United, and AC Milan’s Paul Singer also faced a larger issue. Not only do they head one of the rebel clubs dubbed “the dirty dozen” by UEFA chief Aleksander Ceferin, they’re also American.
Combined with the North American-style sporting concepts at the heart of The Super League and the news that banking giant JPMorgan Chase was underwriting it to the tune of $5 billion, their presence lent a strong US flavor to the project in the angry eyes of many across the Atlantic.
Protesters brandished signs with messages like “Yanks out” as they gathered outside Liverpool’s Anfield home. “US owners find American-style greed doesn’t play well in European soccer,” declared one headline. “Americans are stealing European soccer” and “Are American values ruining European football?” blared others.
So is the US soccer community stuck bearing the burden of a few reckless American billionaires? Like everything else right now, it depends. The Super League membership may have overplayed their hand, but the position they hold in the game may not be subject to change. Fan outrage and potential government intervention could make a future breakaway more difficult, but the highest level of the business of soccer is unlikely to fundamentally change. That’s part of the problem.
Observers quickly connected the relegation-proof security sought by Super League founders with the “closed shop” structure of MLS, where Kroenke, notably, is also an investor. The Independent reported that the restive owners of The Super League were driven in part by seeing MLS clubs valued much more highly compared to revenues than they are, and seeking more of that sort of stability for themselves.
Conversations with American fans suggest that the American owners’ viewpoint is not widely shared by their compatriots. I asked several devoted US supporters of the European clubs in question and none expressed any support or desire for The Super League whatsoever. Neither did any seem to have much difficulty in understanding and distinguishing between the differing landscapes and competitive infrastructures on the two continents.
Perhaps it’s reflective of the US soccer experience that we tend to become more familiar with the nuances of this conversation than many of our opposite numbers across the pond. Those who’ve watched MLS wrestle with North American sports conventions since it launched a quarter-century ago can quickly recognize the European landscape’s myriad obstacles to the so-called Americanization of their game.
It’s the Europeans themselves who seem hypnotized by the scale of their biggest clubs’ popularity in this country and other frontiers like East Asia and Africa, and the tantalizingly lucrative possibilities it leads them to envision. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez was one of the only other prominent The Super League figures besides Henry to lift his head above the ramparts this week, and it was a doozy. In a Wednesday appearance on a Spanish radio show, he made further headlines.
“Real Madrid have always been in, the possibility of [Super League] without Real Madrid is zero,” declared Perez before making an example of two of his lesser La Liga colleagues. “The clubs that have to be there are the ones who have earned the right over the past 20 years, who have followings on social media and fans, who have been in semifinals and finals of the Champions League. They say we’re all equal, but there are games nobody watches. I struggle to watch them, and if I struggle to watch them… Elche vs Valladolid?”
Perez’s Madrid set a US soccer attendance record when their preseason friendly vs. Man United drew 109,318 spectators in Michigan in 2014. Four years later, their La Liga counterparts Espanyol played the USL’s Richmond Kickers in front of a crowd of 7,356 in the Virginia capital. There’s something absurd about the number of Twitter and Instagram followers cited to justify a permanently privileged upper class. If it’s even possible to manage the emotions of the current moment, it’s not hard to see why Spain’s two giants, Madrid and FC Barcelona, see their future on a different plane entirely.
The rushed roll out of The Super League concept was a key ingredient in its swift crumbling. The deeper issues that turned this long-mooted idea into reality may prove much more difficult to suppress. European soccer embracing modern sports business is nothing new at all levels, all too eager to embrace paths to increasing revenue. It’s too easy to turn that into a way to scapegoat ugly Americans on both sides of the argument.
As Stateside fans know all too well, it’s been a profoundly difficult, multi-generational labor to seed, nurture and sustain the world’s favorite sport in US and Canadian soil. It shouldn’t have been that hard to carry that lesson over in reverse. But it seems no one in charge of The Super League asked any fans anything at all.
More from Charles Boehm:
- Is MLS developing replacement level players?
- DC United step onto the scales as new era unfolds
- A new project in San Francisco, US pro soccer’s most elusive frontier
- Four talking points following the USMNT’s win over Jamaica
Logo courtesy of The Super League