A fundamental principle of club football, for more than a century, has been that no one team holds a permanent advantage over any other. Instead, status is earned, week by week, on the pitch. Those teams who lose enough are relegated to a lower division. In fact, the one thing that explains why viewers are glued to a 90-minute match that may yield few goals or none at all—something many Americans, raised on a high-points sports diet, will never understand—is its sheer unpredictability, the possibility that a poorly resourced, third-tier team may beat a ruling champion.
The flouting of this principle caused a firestorm last April, when the presidents of 12 major clubs launched the ill-fated idea of a European Super League. They did so as a self-selected aristocracy: based not on their teams’ recent performances but on the size of their global brands. Dispelling any illusion of fair play, moreover, their design practically immunized the league’s members against relegation to a lower division. Within minutes of the Super League announcement, the clubs’ own fans cried foul, forcing the stunned presidents to pull the plug on the project almost overnight.
These local fan bases may be the last line of defense in the face of an all-out, global assault on football as we know it. Despite its massive commercialization, the world of football has never been about making a profit, since even the most craven, businesslike owners have been forced to reinvest almost every euro earned in the ever more expensive talent. In fact, the journalist Simon Kuper, writing for a Dutch weekly, rightly identified the Super League as football’s first purely neoliberal initiative. And that made the fans’ revolt, Kuper wrote, into “the first mass uprising against neoliberalism.” It was something like a mainstream Occupy Wall Street, and maybe—just maybe—a harbinger of political things to come.
Maybe. If football clubs have not quite been focused on making a profit, that doesn’t mean the game has been immune to global economic trends. Inequality, in particular, is on the rise. As David Goldblatt shows in The Age of Football, his sprawling world history of 21st-century soccer, the gap separating the rich from the poor, winners from losers—among clubs, competitions, countries, and continents—is wider today than it’s ever been, precisely because the game has never been more popular.
Live match broadcasts, which took off in the early 1990s, have allowed the major soccer leagues to cultivate fan bases around the world. Teams like Manchester United and Real Madrid now have millions of supporters on every continent. Yet while those satellite loyalties have turned broadcasting rights into a gold mine, they are also the death of local soccer cultures. Viewers in Africa who watch the Premier League—England’s top division—have stopped going to their neighborhood stadiums. Brazilians who want to see their best talents in action are forced to tune in to foreign competitions. European fans, meanwhile, have seen their leagues modify their match schedules, public relations, merchandise, and ticket prices to maximize their global income.
Indeed, it is this worldwide support that allowed the proponents of the Super League to dream of unmooring football from the uncertainty of winning and losing and transform it finally into only a generator of profit. On the other hand, the opposition to this neoliberal vision offers some slight hope.
The forces undermining the game are many. Rampant match fixing is corrupting football from below, Goldblatt shows in The Age of Football, especially but not only in developing countries. Yet this localized corruption is met from the top by clubs like Manchester City and Paris St. Germain (PSG), which deploy unlimited reserves of Middle East oil money to buy whatever player they want and bend regulatory agencies like FIFA, the world soccer federation, to their needs.
Consider Leo Messi. His sudden transfer, this August, from FC Barcelona to PSG—a club owned since 2011 by the government of Qatar, which also organizes the 2022 World Cup—confirms soccer’s central role, along with the Olympics, in geopolitical “sportswashing”: when repressive regimes use sports to buy political and corporate goodwill. PSG, which in 2017 purchased the Brazilian forward Neymar from Barcelona for a record-shattering quarter-billion-dollar transfer fee, still hasn’t been able to win the Champions League, in which Europe’s best club teams compete. If, with Messi, it finally manages to bag the title, many fans will conclude that prizes can be bought, after all.
For Goldblatt, as for journalist Kuper, soccer and its cultures represent both the worst symptoms of global capitalism and a reserve of utopian possibility. Despite “the new colonization of the game by commercial and political forces,” Goldblatt writes, it remains “a reservoir of alternative and communitarian values” that is most clearly visible in women’s soccer: “Every women’s game … is an act of resistance, a reminder that another world is possible and necessary.”
Yet the picture that emerges from his encyclopedic survey of clubs and leagues around the world is sobering, if not depressing. The rise of global soccer as a multibillion-dollar industry has not only destroyed local sports cultures but also spurred abuses ranging from forced displacements and indentured labor to scouting practices so unscrupulous that they border on human trafficking. Meanwhile, fan bases have been a breeding ground for radical-right movements (although there have been some leftist shoots as well), and the corrupting influence of politicians hoping to piggyback on the sport’s popularity has penetrated clubs and federations to their core.
Goldblatt’s global reach is impressive, as is his nimble style, moving seamlessly from political analysis to fictionalized scenes to nods to Guy Debord and Walter Benjamin. That said, local specifics occasionally trip him up.1
On-the-ground detail is the strength of Simon Kuper’s deeply reported The Barcelona Complex. Born in 1969 in Kampala, Uganda, of South African parents, Kuper lived his early years in the Netherlands, where, like me (born two days later, but in Amsterdam), he became a lifelong fan of Ajax, the legendary Amsterdam football club. Too young to consciously experience the club’s three consecutive European Cups (1971–73), we were old enough to witness the waning years of the generation that revolutionized the game and carried the Dutch national team to two World Cup finals, in 1974 and 1978, only to be traumatically defeated by the respective host countries, Germany and Argentina.
Around the same time, two key figures of that generation exported those innovations to a Francoist Spain on the verge of democracy. Rinus Michels, a former gym teacher who coached FC Barcelona from 1971 until 1978, is credited with the development of “total football,” a philosophy based on a dynamic, possession-based, attacking style in which players apply pressure on the opposing team’s half of the field and constantly switch positions. But it was Johan Cruijff who, first as a player for Barça under Michels (1973–78) and then as its coach (1988–96), perfected the system, laying the basis for the club’s national and global hegemony, as Kuper narrates in fascinating detail.2
Kuper does a good job explaining the revolutionary principles of Cruyffian soccer. On the pitch, it grants players a high level of autonomy in finding creative solutions while requiring maximum positional flexibility, placing higher demands on players’ brains than on their bodies. (The man himself, with a frail build and a lifelong smoking habit, was never the fittest on the squad.) Tactically, Cruyffism is a form of art: it embraces the game’s practical limits—22 players, one ball, 90 minutes—as a creative challenge to constantly rethink its possibilities. And although his philosophy was anything but simple, Cruijff boiled it down to deadpan principles expressed, Yoda-like, in not quite grammatical Dutch (“so long as you got the ball, them can’t score”). He was also among the first to emphasize the importance of youth academies that not only acculturated talented young players into the club’s style of play but also gave them a solid education. After all, he said, most will never make it to the first team and even if they do, their career will be over before they know it.
Cruijff, who was among the first Dutch players to go pro, was never one to underestimate the importance of proper pay. Still, he insisted, money should never become a top priority for a club. In fact, even winning shouldn’t be. The game should be about entertaining the fans and building community. Hence, too, the importance of youth academies: in a world increasingly shaped by international transfers, he said, the fans cherish players they’ve come to see as their own because they’ve witnessed their development firsthand. Thanks largely to Cruijff, this philosophy continues to govern Ajax, even as fans like me have learned to live with the fact that their biggest talents will be snatched up by much richer foreign clubs after only a couple of years in the first team.
If football clubs have not quite been focused on making a profit, that doesn’t mean the game has been immune to global economic trends. Inequality, in particular, is on the rise.
Following in Cruijff’s and Michels’s footsteps, Barça’s rise to the top was fueled by a steady stream of Dutch players and coaches, primarily via Ajax, from Johan Neeskens to Frank Rijkaard, the De Boer brothers, Ronald Koeman, and, most recently, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay. Their experiences are the focus of Edwin Winkels’s entertaining Van Johan tot Frenkie (From Johan to Frenkie), a collection based on interviews conducted over several decades that makes for a welcome anecdote-filled complement to Kuper’s more analytical account. Winkels explains, for example, that Cruijff’s status in Catalonia as an anti-Franco rebel was based on a misunderstanding. When his first son was born, in 1974, the father insisted that he be named Jordi—as it happens, the nation’s patron saint—when Catalan names were strictly forbidden by the dictatorial regime. “But I wasn’t concerned with politics at all,” he confessed to Winkels later. “We had no idea, we just liked the name.”
Barça’s global ascent and domination from the late 1980s on eventually lifted Spain’s national team to a series of unprecedented successes, culminating in the 2010 World Cup. Its opponent in that final was, of all countries, the Netherlands, which in an excruciating 120 minutes saw itself beaten at its own game. What goes around, comes around: less than a decade later, Barcelona was, too. As Kuper tells the story, the club’s “unmaking” was due not to the failure of Cruyffian soccer but to the sheer global appeal of its principles, which other coaches and clubs adopted and developed further. New generations of players, for example, now combine Cruyffian levels of technical skill and tactical insight with a kind of physical stamina that the number 14 himself never had.
Relying on an aging squad, Barça stopped evolving and instead built its entire strategy around its single best player, the Argentine Leo Messi. The club’s inept leaders became so concerned with staying at the top that they focused too much on the transfer market, where they committed some very expensive missteps, while creating a steeper on-ramp for young talent from the club’s own academy. To make things worse, Messi’s father negotiated numerous salary raises for his son that created a domino effect in the rest of the squad, making Barça’s players the world’s highest paid.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the coup de grâce for the club’s dangerously imbalanced ledger. Even with Messi gone, it’ll take years to climb out of its billion-and-a-half-dollar hole.
The last time I took my teenage daughter to an Ajax match, in the Amsterdam stadium named after Cruijff, I was touched to see how much of her identity, like mine and my parents’, is tied to her passion for the club. Yet somehow her emigrant’s excitement—she grew up in the American Midwest—stood out: the dyed-in-the-wool fans around us spent most of the 90 minutes bad-mouthing the players and the coach.
The truth is that tough love has long been European football fans’ baseline stance toward their clubs. It’s rooted in a sense of ownership that’s more than psychological: many clubs on the continent (fewer in the UK) are still set up as collectively owned members’ associations. Fans also know that their loyalty to the club is far more constant than that of the management, the coach, and even the players, who will trade in their allegiance for a better salary elsewhere any day.
FC Barcelona, too, strapped for cash and Messi-less, is now forced to go back to basics and its stock of homegrown talent. This may be less hard than it seems. As Kuper makes clear, Barça is still a “neighborhood club run by local merchants”—upper middle-class and deeply Catalan, although less progressive than it likes to think—that has managed to stay true to itself. Before the Dutch revolution of the 1970s, being a Barça fan, a culer, meant being used to losing.
Meanwhile, Goldblatt’s hunch that women’s soccer might help save the sport is arguably becoming a reality in the Catalan capital. Last year, while Barça’s men finished a disappointing third in the league, the women’s team—which plays in the Estadi Johan Cruyff (capacity 6,000)—crushed the competition, finishing a stunning 25 points ahead of its nearest Spanish rival, Real Madrid, while also winning the Champions League. The team’s star player, the 28-year-old Dutch forward Lieke Martens, shares her initials with Messi, with whom she appeared on posters around town when she was hired in 2017. But the PR campaign suggesting equality was misleading to the point of hypocrisy: Martens’s salary, at $230,000, is 0.28 percent of what the Argentine made in the men’s squad and, corrected for inflation, about 3 percent of what Cruijff earned in the 1970s.3), which would be slightly over 7 million euros today.]
If Goldblatt is right that rampant inequality is undermining soccer as we know it, then it seems to make little sense to look to the woefully underpaid women’s game for hope. Female players in Europe and the Americas have rightly rallied for equal pay. Yet if their goal were reached, wouldn’t women’s soccer simply follow in the men’s commercialized tracks? Then again, equal pay is not the only cause the women have taken on. They’ve also protested structural abuse by coaches—in early October, US teams refused to play, forcing their league to take action—and they are way ahead of the men when it comes to LGBT rights.
If soccer has become a progressive political force, it’s largely thanks to the women. Some of that legacy may well persist when a future generation’s Lieke Martens makes as much as the next Messi.
This article was commissioned by Bécquer Seguín.
- The Spanish politician Alberto Garzón, an Andalusian Communist, is misidentified as a Catalan independence leader, for example; and Mexican presidents govern for a six-year sexenio, not sexieno. ↩
- In Spanish and English, Cruijff adapted the Dutch spelling of his last name to the more internationally friendly Cruyff. ↩
- Messi’s salary at Barça in 2020 was around 70,000,000 euros; Cruijff, in 1978, made 6 million guilders (Pieter van Os, Johan Cruijff, de Amerikaanse Jaren [Carrera, 2007 ↩