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Soccer’s Coming Storm

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Sign up for Rory Smith’s weekly newsletter on world soccer (and, for the foreseeable future, quite a few other topics) at nytimes.com/rory.

At first glance, the problem is clear, and the problem is money. Soccer, at its rarefied heights, is awash with it: broadcasting deals and sponsorship agreements and corporate entertainment, all of it swilling through leagues and clubs, into the hands of players and executives and agents.

Particularly in the Premier League, everyone has grown fat on it, and now that the supply has been cut off, nobody wants to go hungry. Weeks after games were canceled and the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic, long after Barcelona’s squad agreed to give up 70 percent of its salaries, long after Juventus players delayed their payment for months, players in England had still not agreed to defer or forfeit their salaries.

As of Thursday, their union — the Professional Footballers’ Association — was still locked in negotiations with the Premier League, the Football League and the Football Association, trying to strike a deal. The Premier League had advised its clubs that it wanted them to act in unison; it did not want anyone moving unilaterally.

At the same time, just as in the United States and other countries, hundreds of thousands of people in the rest of the British economy were filing for unemployment benefits, just the first wave of the economic shock caused by the coronavirus and the shuttering of towns and cities across the world.

At least four Premier League clubs, meanwhile, have moved to place many of their nonplaying staff on furlough: Norwich City, Newcastle United, Bournemouth and Tottenham Hotspur. Others will follow, perhaps including some of the richest in the game, teams that are planning to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in this summer’s transfer market now taking advantage of government support programs to pay their employees.

It is not yet a month since the Premier League was open for business as normal, not yet a month since these teams, backed by billionaires, played a game. English soccer’s broadcasters have not yet — as two networks have in France — refused to pay the latest portion of their rights agreements. Those acting on behalf of the players are surprised, it has been suggested, that the richest league in the world should plead poverty quite so quickly.

From the outside, it is a faintly obscene situation. Soccer, of course, makes a convenient punching bag at times like this, a portrait in the attic for a society unwilling to confront its inequalities. Politicians, never slow to issue moral judgment on footballers, have raged at how out of touch they are, how spoiled, how greedy, how abominably obsessed by money.

But the root of the problem is not the surfeit of money; that is merely a function of the real issue, which is the dearth of trust. The players do not trust that the clubs are not trying to make them shoulder the burden. The clubs do not trust that the players’ agents — and by extension the players — will act honorably, in the common good.

And, just as important, the clubs do not trust one another: hence the Premier League’s edict that, whatever action is taken, it should be across the board. Even in normal times, these institutions eye one another with suspicion. They believe that their rivals will, in some way, attempt to use any situation to gain a competitive edge. They are not well suited to collective action.

That lack of trust permeates the game. FIFA, as my colleague Tariq Panja reported this week, has plans to use some of its vast cash reserves as an emergency fund for clubs to dip into in their hour of need. Privately, though, officials worry that much of that money will simply vanish, lost as it percolates through national associations or is siphoned off by agents.

The same is true at UEFA. It does not entirely trust the leagues; the leagues do not trust each other; some of them do not trust their clubs. This is the ultimate consequence of the undiluted neoliberal thinking that has permeated soccer: the idea that all are out for themselves.

That belief is so ingrained in the sport — especially in England, where the Premier League has been built on the purest Thatcherism known to man — that it cannot easily be set aside, even now, even at a time like this. (The contrast with Germany, where clubs are held to be community assets, is stark. There, players have sacrificed wages and clubs’ money without giving the impression it is having to be clawed from their fingers.)

The immediate consequence of that, of course, is that soccer has an image problem. It will be remembered that the national game, in England, did not seem especially willing to do its part to help out the country in its hour of need. There have been gestures, of course, welcome ones, as I noted last week; individual clubs and players have done what they can to use their platforms for good. But from the outside, it looks a lot like as soon as money came into it, that changed.

There is, though, a longer-term issue. No matter when the pandemic abates, no matter when life returns to something approaching normal, no matter when soccer comes back and no matter which season it is, there will be an economic cost, just as there will be in every other industry.

Few clubs, even elite ones, are enormously profitable. (It has been striking how fragile such a lucrative ecosystem can be.) The loss of match-day revenue — much less having to pay back a portion of television income — will be enough to tip quite a few of them into the red. A few steps down from the game’s aristocrats, the effects will be much more severe.

That means a contraction of the market: not just for transfer fees, but for player salaries and agents’ commissions, too. Clubs will be able to spend less, and will be inclined to sell more, driving down prices. Players will not command the sorts of salaries they might have done. At some clubs, it is possible that players will need to take pay cuts, just to help the team absorb the blow.

But this is a world, remember, where the players do not trust the clubs, the clubs do not trust the players, and the clubs do not trust one another, where everyone believes everyone else is out for himself, and so they must be, too. Players will be unwilling to suffer if they feel the clubs are passing the buck onto them. Clubs will be tempted to pay beyond their means in order to keep up with their rivals. For soccer, there is a second crisis, waiting just behind this one.

The thought has occurred, in recent days, that perhaps March 2020 marked the end of soccer’s golden era, the 25-year period when it was the biggest show on earth, a cultural phenomenon of unparalleled scale, an apparently bottomless pit of money and glamour. There was no trust, no unity, no collective spirit in times of plenty. We may be about to find out what happens in times of want.

(Thanks to the three Davids — Burney, Alan Miller and the mysterious “In Maryland” — who all wrote in asking various questions about the financial impact of the crisis and the general health of soccer’s bank balances. I hope this, in some way, sheds a little light.)

I knew, as I was writing last week’s reading suggestions, that I would later be furious at myself for forgetting great swaths of excellent soccer-related literature. Fortunately, many of you were on hand to jog my memory.

There was a lot of well-earned love, in particular, for David Winner’s “Brilliant Orange,” Sid Lowe’s “Fear and Loathing in La Liga” and Joe McGinniss’s “Miracle of Castel di Sangro.” I’d readily add all of those to the list. I expected a few to mention “Fever Pitch,” and was not disappointed, but I was really pleased that someone else out there loves “The Far Corner,” Harry Pearson’s wonderfully funny assessment of soccer in the North East of England, as much as I do. That would make fine lockdown reading, I think.

Others suggested books that I had better add to my birthday list. I’ve never read Bill Buford’s “Among the Thugs,” which feels like an oversight, while “Fathers of Football,” by Keith Baker, and Paul Watson’s “Up Pohnpei!” — this is a pun on an English television series of the 1970s, which I watched and loved as a child but I suspect has not aged well — sound like the sorts of things I’d very much enjoy. Thanks for the suggestions: I’ll do my best to read them, but (for toddler-related reasons) my reviews may take awhile.

Coby Lubliner and Howard Bender were among those who asked for thoughts on “The English Game,” the Netflix series that deals with the story of Fergus Suter, who may well have been the first true professional player in England. I’m currently two episodes in, and would never cast myself as a television critic, but will say this: Goalkeepers in the 1880s were apparently awful. I shouted “narrow the angle” at one point.

It’s quite enjoyable, other than that. The historical elements are broadly right, from a soccer perspective: The Scots did invent passing, and when the English first encountered it, they didn’t really know what to do. But depicting Suter as a sort of forerunner of Pep Guardiola seems a bit of a stretch.

An update on the singular/plural debate from Fred Helms, a retired historian (it never fails to amaze me just how educated our readership is; it’s quite intimidating). “I think the American use of the singular is as opposed to the plural are came about as a result of the Civil War,” Fred wrote. “Prior to the war Americans talked and wrote about the United States using the plural — these United States ‘are.’ After the war common usage changed to the United States ‘is.’ Gradually that usage came to be applied to other groups such as sports teams.”

That leads me on to Thomas Bodenberg, who knows exactly what we need now. “A cultural anthropologist would have a field day dissecting and proffering the why of these differences,” he wrote. Any volunteers?

And both Richard Murray and Christopher Sousa fell into my trap of asking why Rugby League is so much better than Rugby Union. The former is 13 people running into each other constantly. The latter is 15 people, on each team, watching as one of their number boots the ball forward, and then waiting to find out which arcane rule defines what happens next, all the while being very polite about it. That is as neat a summary as I can offer.

That’s all for this week. All ideas, suggestions and book recommendations are welcome: [email protected] I’m on Twitter, of course, rather more than I should be. This week’s Set Piece Menu was recorded before social distancing and involved a coconut cake, from memory. And you can tell everyone you know about how nice it is to get an email every Friday here.

Have a great weekend.


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