* In the world’s most innovative soccer country, Germany, ex-players have now lost their monopoly on managerial jobs. In the German soccer federation’s annual training course to certify professional coaches, an average of sixteen of the twenty-four places are reserved for people who didn’t play professionally. The man who runs the course, Frank Wormuth, told the Dutch website DeCorrespondent.nl that although it helps to know “the smell of the stables” in professional soccer, “that’s only one aspect of being a coach. How are you pedagogically, analytically, communicatively? Ex-pros often have less of an eye for that.”
* The most obvious reason soccer was such an incompetent business for so long is that soccer clubs tended to hire incompetent staff.
* Baseball for a long time was just as incompetent. In Moneyball Lewis asked why, among baseball executives and scouts, “there really is no level of incompetence that won’t be tolerated.” He thought the main reason was “that baseball has structured itself less as a business than as a social club.… There are many ways to embarrass the Club, but being bad at your job isn’t one of them. The greatest offense a Club member can commit is not ineptitude but disloyalty.” Club members—and this applies in soccer as much as in baseball—are selected for clubbability. Clever outsiders are not clubbable, because they talk funny and go around pointing out the things that people inside the club are doing wrong. “It wasn’t as simple as the unease of jocks in the presence of nerds,” wrote Lewis, but that unease does have a lot to do with it.
The staff of soccer clubs traditionally tend not merely to be incompetent; they are also often novices. This is because staff turnover is rapid. Whenever a new owner arrives, he generally brings in his cronies. The departing staff rarely join a new club because that is considered disloyal (Kenyon, an exception, was persecuted for moving from United to Chelsea), even though players change clubs all the time. So soccer executives are always having to reinvent the wheel.
Worse, the media and fans often make it impossible for clubs to take sensible decisions. They are always hassling the club to do something immediately.
* Chris Anderson entered soccer specifically with the aim of making the game smarter. Once a semiprofessional goalkeeper in Germany, he became a professor of political science at Cornell University, but his life changed in 2009 when his wife gave him a copy of Moneyball. Anderson read it open-mouthed. He began blogging about soccer data. Soon he was being asked to consult clubs. He wrote his book The Numbers Game and in 2015 gave up his tenured job at Cornell to become managing director of Coventry City in England’s League One. He lasted only eleven months at Coventry, but he came away with some insights into why clubs don’t think very hard. Anderson told the world-class Dutch sportswriter Michiel de Hoog that he hadn’t come across a single truly innovative club anywhere in soccer. A club could potentially use all the new knowledge from physiology, psychology, sports data, organizational science, and so on, and come up with a completely different way of doing things, but, said Anderson, “No one has really taken it and run with it.”
Why not? Anderson identified various reasons:
1. “Time is the great luxury in football,” he told de Hoog. Coventry often played two matches a week. That constant pressure dissuades clubs from trying anything new.
2. European soccer clubs can be relegated, which means financial disaster. Clubs in American sports leagues are free from that pressure, which is why you find innovators at some NBA teams, such as the Houston Rockets and the Philadelphia 76ers.
3. If you do everything the same as all the other clubs, then you can’t be blamed or humiliated if things go wrong.
4. Most soccer clubs are packed with people who have always done things the old way. So everyone keeps doing the same things they have done forever, even if those things have never worked particularly well.
5. A “masculine culture” in the “working-class” soccer industry encourages stubbornness and certainty, argues Anderson. He says that in recent years the game’s insiders, the gnarled old ex-players-turned-coaches, have become scared of losing their power to eggheaded data whizzes. That has made some of them even more stubborn.
Anderson had concluded that the clubs with the most freedom to innovate were new creations with no preexisting culture, such as RB Leipzig, which was founded in 2009 and now regularly qualifies for the Champions League. But in the rest of the industry, he said, two basic rules applied: “When you’re doing well, why change? And when you’re doing badly, why change?”
* Historically in Western countries, attitudes to bankruptcy had been harsh. In nineteenth-century England, bankrupts were still being sent to prison. But over time we have become more forgiving. Increasingly, people have come to recognize that bankruptcy can be caused by bad luck as well as bad judgment. As well as relaxing our moral stance, we have discovered some self-interested motives to keep struggling businesses alive: bankruptcy destroys a company’s value, often unnecessarily. By the 1980s, the UK’s traditional method of liquidation—the bankrupt company’s assets were sold, the debts repaid as far as possible, and the company liquidated—had become discredited. Critics said it gave stricken companies little chance to recover. They praised the American approach, which treated failure as a frequently necessary precursor to eventual success. In 1979 the US introduced the now-famous Chapter 11 provisions. These protect a firm from its creditors while it tries to work out a solution that saves the business. Britain—where insolvencies hit an all-time high during the Thatcher recession—wanted some of that. Later, Italy, Germany, Spain, and eventually France adopted some version of the more forgiving “American” bankruptcy laws. This proved a boon to soccer clubs.
* In 1991 Ron Noades, chairman of Crystal Palace, popped up on British TV. “The problem with Black players,” explained Noades, whose heavily Black team had just finished third in England, “is they’ve great pace, great athletes, love to play with the ball in front of them.… When it’s behind them, it’s chaos. I don’t think too many of them can read the game. When you’re getting into the midwinter, you need a few of the hard white men to carry the athletic Black players through.”
Noades’s interview was one of the last flourishes of unabashed racism in British soccer. Through the 1980s, racism had been more or less taken for granted in the game. Fans threw bananas at Black players. Pundits like Emlyn Hughes explained the curious absence of Black players at Liverpool and Everton by saying, “They haven’t got the bottle.” The writer Dave Hill summed up the stereotypes: “‘No bottle’ is a particular favorite, lack of concentration another. ‘You don’t want too many of them in your defense,’ one backroom bod told me, ‘they cave in under pressure.’ Then there is the curious conviction that Blacks are susceptible to the cold and won’t go out when it rains.”
* As late as 1993, you could still witness the following scene in London: a crowd of people in a pub in the central business district, the “City,” is watching England-Holland on TV. Every time Jamaican-born John Barnes gets the ball, one man—in shirtsleeves and a tie, just out of his City office—makes monkey noises. Every time, his coworkers laugh. If anyone had complained, let alone gone off to find a police officer and asked him to arrest the man, the response would have been “Where’s your sense of humor?”
* Back in the 1970s, there were very few Black players in English soccer. Combining the data on wages with Crick’s database had generated a sample of thirty-nine out of the ninety-two professional league teams. In the 1973–1974 season, only two of these clubs had fielded any Black players at all. By 1983–1984, there were still twenty teams in our sample that did not field a Black player all season. However, at this point there seems to have been a major breakthrough. By 1989, every team in the sample had fielded at least one Black player at some point. By 1992, when the Premier League was founded, only five teams in the sample did not field a Black player that season. This implied that about 90 percent of clubs were putting Black players in the first team. Attitudes were changing. Bananas left the game. When Noades voiced his theories on Black players in 1991, he was widely derided.
It is interesting to look at the characteristics of the Black players in the English game in these years. For purposes of comparison, Stefan constructed a random sample of an equal number of white players with similar age profiles. Almost all the Black players (89 percent) were born in Britain, not very different from the white players (95 percent). Most of the Black players were strikers (58 percent), compared with only 33 percent of white players. There were no Black goalkeepers at the time. Noades would have noted the fact that Black players seemed underrepresented in defense. But then strikers always carry a premium to defenders in the market: it takes more talent to score than to stop other people from scoring.
* Only about 1.6 percent of people in the 1991 British census described themselves as Black. Yet in the early 1990s, about 10 percent of all players in English professional soccer were Black. By the end of the decade, after the influx of foreign players, the share was nearer 20 percent. By 2021, the proportion in the English Premier League was over 40 percent.
* The general obsession with managers is a version of the “great man” theory of history, the idea that prominent individuals—Genghis Khan, or Napoleon, or even Ranieri—cause historical change. Academic historians binned this theory decades ago.
* The best measure of success in club soccer is a simple list: the names of the clubs that have won the European Cup since the competition began in 1956. Study this list, and you’ll see that the history of the European Cup breaks down into three periods.
The first, from 1956 through the late 1960s, is dominated by the capital cities of fascist regimes. Of the first eleven European Cups, eight were won by either Real Madrid (the favorite club of General Francisco Franco) or Benfica (from the capital of the Portuguese dictator Salazar). Seven of the losing teams in the first sixteen finals also came from fascist capitals: Real, Benfica, and, in 1971, Panathinaikos from the Athens of the colonels’ regime.
But by the start of the 1970s, the dominance of fascist capitals was eroding. Fascist governments seldom outlast their leaders, and Portugal’s had entered a twilight after Salazar died in 1970. Meanwhile, everyone was waiting for Franco to go, too.
Yet even after fascism disappeared, teams from Europe’s remaining dictatorial capitals continued to thrive. Steaua Bucharest, run by a son of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu, won the cup in 1986. Red Star Belgrade triumphed in 1991 just as Yugoslavia was breaking into pieces. The same phenomenon was at work in the communist countries as in the fascist capitals before them. Dictators send resources to the capital because that is where they and their senior bureaucrats and soldiers and secret police officers live. So the dictators do up the main buildings, boost the local economy, and help the soccer club. That’s totalitarian soccer.
* Totalitarian capitals got off to a great start in the European Cup. But for the first forty-two years of the trophy’s life, the democratic capitals of Europe never won it.
* Instead of Western capitals, provincial Western European cities dominated the European Cup and Champions League. The rule of the provinces holds true even in the most obsessively centralized countries. Teams from five provincial British cities won the European Cup before London finally got one.
* Capitals—especially London, Paris, and Moscow—tend to have the greatest concentrations of national resources. It’s therefore striking how badly their clubs seem to have underperformed. We can speculate about why this is. But perhaps the main reason that teams from democratic capital cities weren’t up to much for the first few decades of European cup soccer is psychological. In capital cities no soccer club can matter all that much. There was an instructive sight, sometime in the late 1990s, of a group of visiting fans from an English provincial town wandering down London’s Baker Street yelling their club songs at passersby. In their minds they were shaming the Londoners, invading the city for a day, making all the noise. But the Londoners they were shouting at—many of them foreigners anyway—didn’t care about or even understand the point they were making.
* London, Paris, and Moscow don’t need to win the Champions League. It is a different type of city where a soccer club can mean everything: the provincial industrial town. These are the places that have ousted the fascist capitals as rulers of European soccer.
* By 1892, all twenty-eight English professional clubs were from the North or the Midlands. Soccer was as northern a game as rugby league. The champions in the Victorian era came from northern industrial towns such as Preston, Sheffield, or Sunderland, then still among the richest spots on Earth. When these places became too poor and small to support successful clubs, the league title merely migrated to larger northern cities.
The legacy of the Industrial Revolution still shapes English fandom. Today the combined population of Greater Merseyside, Greater Manchester, and Lancashire County is less than 5.5 million, or a little over 10 percent of the English population. Nonetheless, at the end of the 2020–2021 season, the top three teams in the Premier League table—the two Manchester teams and Liverpool—were all based in this region. Their advantage: more than a century of brand building. Manchester United became arguably the most popular club on Earth largely because Manchester had been the first industrial city on Earth. The club is only the biggest local soccer relic of that era. The forty-three professional clubs within ninety miles of Manchester probably represent the greatest soccer density in the world.
Almost all Europe’s best traditional soccer cities have a profile like Manchester’s. They were once new industrial centers that sucked in hapless villagers. The newcomers cast around for something to belong to and settled on soccer. Supporting a local club helped them make a place for themselves in the city. So clubs mattered more here, and grew bigger, than in capital cities or ancient cathedral towns with old-established hierarchies.
* Real Madrid is the king of European soccer, with thirteen European Cups, or Champions Leagues (through 2021), but it’s the exception. All the other major powers are provincial industrial towns. If you take Barcelona, Manchester, Turin, and Munich, and add on Milan, Inter, and Hamburg, then large provincial cities won a combined twenty-seven out of fifty-nine European Cups from 1963 through 2021. The smaller industrial or port cities Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Birmingham, Marseille, Porto, Dortmund, Eindhoven, and Rotterdam have won an additional sixteen. And all these industrial cities have a story much like Manchester’s, although their growth spurts happened later. Peasants arrived from the countryside, leaving all their roots behind. Needing something to belong to in their new cities, they chose soccer. That’s why, in all these places, the soccer clubs arose soon after the factories.
* The link between industry and soccer is almost universal across Europe. The largest crowds in Europe in the pre-pandemic 2018–2019 season were at Borussia Dortmund (average: 80,841), one of many clubs in the industrial German Ruhr region. In France, too, it is the industrial cities that have historically loved their clubs best. The country’s few traditional hotbeds of soccer, other than the port of Marseille, are the mining towns of Lens and Saint-Étienne.
All these industrial towns were products of a particular era. In all of them the Industrial Revolution ended, often painfully. But along with the empty docks and factory buildings, the other legacy of industrialization was beloved soccer clubs. The quirk of a particular era gave Manchester United, Barcelona, Juventus, Bayern Munich, and the Milan clubs enough fans to dominate first their own countries and then Europe.
* Admittedly, almost all cities in Europe have had some experience of industrialization. But very few have had as much as Manchester, Turin, Milan, Istanbul, or Barcelona. These were the European cities with the most flux, the fewest long-standing hierarchies, the weakest ties between people and place. Here, there were emotional gaps to fill. This becomes obvious when we contrast the industrial cities with old towns that have a traditional upper-class streak. In England, Oxford, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Canterbury, York, and Bath (including its rural outskirts) are all decent-sized places, with somewhere between 100,000 and 175,000 inhabitants each. Many industrial towns of that size or even smaller—Middlesbrough, Reading, Ipswich, Blackburn, Watford, Burnley—have serious soccer traditions. Yet by the 2021–2022 season, Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, Canterbury, York, and Cheltenham had just three small teams in the English Football League between them: Cheltenham Town, which joined it only in 1999; Oxford United, which reentered the league after a spell in the semiprofessional “non-league” in 2010; and Cambridge United, which came back in 2014. In 2021–2022 all three teams were playing in the league’s third tier. In ancient upmarket towns like these, with age-old hierarchies and few incoming peasants, people simply didn’t need soccer clubs to root themselves.
Oxford’s face to the world is the university. In industrial cities it is the soccer club. Barcelona, Marseille, and (most of the time) Newcastle are the pride of their cities, a symbolic two fingers up at the capital. When Barcelona wins something, the president of Catalonia traditionally hoists himself up on the balcony of his palace on the Plaça Sant Jaume and shouts at the crowds below, “Long live Barça, long live Catalonia!”
These provincial clubs have armies of fans, players who will bleed for the club, and backing from local plutocrats.
* sport is the most important communal activity in many people’s lives. About a third of Americans watch the Super Bowl. However, European soccer is even more popular. In the Netherlands, possibly the European country that follows its national team most eagerly, three-quarters of the population have watched Holland’s biggest soccer games. In many European countries, World Cups may now be the greatest shared events of any kind.
* The typical soccer tournament saved hundreds of lives.
* “There are few outlets which permit a wide and acceptable expression of Scottish nationhood—sport is perhaps the most powerful, and [soccer] is the national game.… We would speculate that such a common interest and endeavor, fused with a surge of nationalism, might enhance social cohesion in the manner proposed by Durkheim to explain the decreased suicide rates that accompany times of war.”
* “Social cohesion” is the key phrase here. This is the benefit that almost all fans—potential suicides and the rest of us—get from fandom. Winning or losing is not the point. You can get social cohesion even from losing. Very often, a nation will bond over a defeat in a big soccer game. People sob in public, perform postmortems in the office the next morning, hunt for scapegoats together. For Brazilians, for instance, their 1–7 defeat in 2014 was a shared national moment at least as memorable as victory in Yokohama in 2002. It is not the case that losing matches makes significant numbers of people so unhappy that they jump off apartment buildings. In the US, fans of longtime losers like the Chicago Cubs and the Boston Red Sox baseball teams (Boston became frequent winners again only from 2004 onward, and the Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years in 2016) did not kill themselves more than other people, says Thomas Joiner, author of Why People Die by Suicide, whose own father died by suicide.
Joiner’s article “On Buckeyes, Gators, Super Bowl Sunday, and the Miracle on Ice” makes a strong case that it’s not the winning that counts but the taking part—the shared experience. It is true that he found fewer suicides in Columbus, Ohio, and Gainesville, Florida, in the years when the local college football teams did well. But Joiner argues that this is because fans of winning teams “pull together” more: they wear the team shirt more often, watch games together in bars, talk about the team, and so on, much as happens in a European country while the national team is playing in a World Cup. The “pulling together” saves people from suicide, not the winning. Proof of this is that Joiner found fewer suicides in the US on Super Bowl Sundays than on other Sundays at that time of year, even though few of the Americans who watch the Super Bowl are passionate supporters of either team. What they get from the day’s parties is a sense of belonging.
That is the lifesaver. In Europe today there may be nothing that brings a society together like a World Cup with your team in it. For once, almost everyone in the country is watching the same TV programs and talking about them at work the next day, just as Europeans used to do thirty years ago before they got cable TV and the internet. Part of the point of watching a World Cup is that almost everyone else is watching, too. Isolated people—the types at most risk of suicide—are suddenly welcomed into the national conversation. They are given social cohesion. All this helps explain why big soccer tournaments seem to save so many female lives in Europe, even though relatively few women either commit suicide or (before about 2000 at least) watch soccer. The “pulling together” during a big soccer tournament is so universal that it drags many women along in a way that club soccer does not.
Other than sports, only war and catastrophe can create this sort of national unity. Most strikingly, in the week after John F. Kennedy’s murder in 1963—a time of American sadness but also of “pulling together”—not one suicide was reported in twenty-nine cities studied. Likewise, in the US in the days after the September 11, 2001, attacks, another phase of national “pulling together,” the number of calls to the 1-800-SUICIDE hotline halved to about three hundred a day, “an all-time low,” writes Joiner. And in Britain in 1997, suicides declined after Princess Diana died.
Joiner speculates that “pulling together” through sports may particularly suit “individuals who have poor interpersonal skills (often characteristic of severely depressed or suicidal persons).” You don’t have to be charming to be a fan among fans.
* Then, in 2005, Hiddink landed with a mission to teach European soccer. First he gathered the Australian team in a training camp in his native Back Corner. He spent the first training session watching his new charges fly into each other like kamikaze pilots. “You don’t have to chase these guys up,” he remarked. After a half hour he stopped the game. When the players’ cries of “Come on, Emmo!” “Hold the ball, Johnno!” “Let’s go!” and the streams of “fucking” had finally faded, Hiddink asked them to shout only when a teammate was in trouble and needed coaching. That would improve everyone’s vision of play, he said. The game resumed in near silence. It was Australia’s first baby step toward continental European soccer.
Just as he had with the Koreans, Hiddink was turning the Australians into Dutch soccer players. That meant giving them the intellectual discipline needed for the World Cup. The Australian way was to train hard, play hard, but then relax with late-night beers in the hotel bar. Hiddink wanted the players thinking on their own about their jobs. Working hard wasn’t enough. Hiddink was teaching them to think like their European peers. The Socceroos tended to run to wherever the ball was. Hiddink forbade them from entering certain zones. In European soccer, doing the right things is better than doing a lot of things.
Before taking over, he had watched the Confederations Cup of 2005, where the Socceroos had lost all three of their games and conceded ten goals. Hiddink noticed that all four Australian defenders would often stay back to mark a single forward. That left them short elsewhere on the field. No semiprofessional Western European team would be so naive.
It was striking how quickly the Socceroos learned the basics of European soccer. In November 2005, only a couple of months after Hiddink had started part-time work with them (he was also coaching PSV at the other end of the globe), they beat Uruguay in a playoff to qualify for the World Cup. Suddenly the Melbourne Herald Sun found itself wondering whether “Aussie Rules” football could remain dominant in Australia’s southern states. Already, more Australian children played soccer than Aussie Rules and both rugby codes combined.
The newspaper’s worries appeared justified when, just before the World Cup of 2006, an Australia-Greece soccer exhibition game drew 95,000 people to the Melbourne Cricket Ground. In no city in Europe or Latin America could such a matchup have drawn such a crowd. Australia had also just become approximately the last country on Earth to acquire a national professional soccer league.
And then Hiddink led the Socceroos to the second round of the World Cup of 2006. Great crowds of Australians set their alarm clocks to watch at unearthly hours. A century from now, Aussie Rules might exist only at subsidized folklore festivals.
* Good club teams are almost inevitably better than national teams, Belgium’s coach Roberto Martínez told us in 2018. A club team trains and plays together far more often, and it typically experiences less pressure than a national team. He might have added that big clubs can buy players to fill uncovered positions, whereas nations have to make do.
Martínez’s Red Devils became the closest thing in international soccer to a good club side. Many of his players had known each other since boys’ football and then played together their whole adult careers.
* In the TV era, with comfortable stadiums, soccer hooliganism declined in the game’s economic heartland of Western Europe. Since 2002, the build-up to World Cups has no longer been overshadowed by angst about thugs.
On the field, too, violence has been taken out of the game. In the past, creative players had it hard. The tackles that George Best endured on Manchester United’s right wing in the 1960s almost resembled the sackings of NFL quarterbacks. In 1966 Pelé limped out of the World Cup, in 1983 Diego Maradona’s time at Barcelona was ruined by an assault by Andoni Goikoetxea (“The Butcher of Bilbao”), and in 1992 Marco van Basten’s career was effectively ended by injuries at the age of twenty-eight. But in the TV era, the authorities cracked down on thuggish defending. Before the World Cup of 1998, FIFA made the tackle from behind a sending-off offense. These curbs have freed the game’s stars. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have been able to thrill viewers week in, week out into their mid-thirties or even forties, almost unhindered by injuries or fear.