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Why the Chaotic Protest at Manchester United’s Stadium Was Good, Actually

It turns out that soccer’s pundit class doesn’t really want to hear from the fans, even after the Super League debacle.

Fans at Old Trafford protest the Glazer family.

You could hardly blame NBC Sports for cutting away from Sunday’s fixture between Newcastle and Arsenal to a nearly empty stadium. Dozens of Manchester United fans had broken into Old Trafford, their team’s hallowed ground, in advance of a clash with Liverpool. The fans, many of whom were visibly drunk, were mostly gawking and milling about, though a few did run around on the pitch. Some lit flares. A corner flag was stolen. A camera tripod was smashed. One guy, who kept falling down, lost his shoe. There was a faint air of menace and the sense that anything could happen. In any case, it was better than watching Arsenal.

NBC Sports’ Rebecca Lowe, however, narrated the moment as if it were the Kennedy assassination. Lowe’s tone—one later shared by NBC’s panelists, Robbies Earle and Mustoe—was similar to what you heard on MSNBC or CNN after the riot at the United States Capitol, blending anger, disappointment, disgust. After the game was postponed, Mustoe declared it a “sad day” for the sport, while Earle lit into the protesters for doing things The Wrong Way.

In England, there were similar condemnations of the protest and its accompanying destruction of property. There were also many, many shots of a drunk man throwing a tripod on the ground, played on loop. In one typical clip, the commentator Graeme Souness suggested the protests were sour grapes. Fans were venting “misdirected” anger stemming from the fact that United had stopped hoovering up trophies the way they did under Sir Alex Ferguson, who led the team until 2013. Only Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville refused to condemn what had unfolded. “You know what’s at the heart of it, this is the consequence of the owners of Manchester United’s actions two weeks ago,” Neville said.

Neville was referring to the failed breakaway attempt launched by the owners of United, Liverpool, and 10 other European megaclubs, who had hoped to form a closed European Super League that would have damaged the overall competitiveness of the sport but ensured their own profits for decades to come. When the Super League collapsed under pressure from fans, soccer’s pundit class had one clear takeaway: Fans had a voice again, and this was a good thing. The protest in Manchester was, in fact, an attempt to use that voice, and the furious response from soccer elites is a reminder that they’re not really interested in hearing from the proles at all.

Two weeks ago, we were supposedly witnessing the start of a revolution. For too long, greedy owners had decimated the beautiful game, sucking all of the joy and spontaneity out of it in an unending pursuit of riches. A host of rapacious and unsavory entities—oligarchs, human-rights-trampling petrostates, Americans—had transformed pillars of communities into global brands, divorcing soccer teams from their working-class, regional roots. The sport had become corporate, soulless, increasingly designed to line the pockets of people who didn’t care one iota about the game.

When the Super League crumbled less than 48 hours after being announced, it was seen as a victory for fans who were sick of eating the dirt that had been shoveled at them by greedy owners for decades. “In an age where people—including me—were worried that fans had no power, that fans had no voice, that it really was the fans that broke this down,” Lowe said. “It was that pushback that reinstilled my faith that fans do have power.”

On Sunday, fans of Manchester United tried to use this momentum to demand a change in ownership at their club—and, in some cases, a change in the ownership structure of English soccer as a whole. The demise of the Super League presented arguably the best opportunity in more than a decade to publicize their litany of grievances with the Glazer family, whose debt-fueled takeover of the team in 2005—which has been followed by years of piling on more debt, all for the benefit of the Glazers—symbolized the shameless financialization of soccer. The Glazers are the poster children of the corporate nihilism of the Premier League.

And by any reasonable historical standard—particularly by the standards of English soccer in the 1980s—Sunday’s protest was tame stuff. Compared to the exploits recounted in books like Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs, it was PG. It was shambolic. It was often embarrassing and occasionally regrettable (two policemen were injured scuffling with protesters). But the goal of the protests was to turn the heat up on the Glazer family and draw attention to the many flaws and inequities of the Premier League’s ownership structure. Fans are doing many things to raise their voices—petitions, meetings, and, yes, protests—but nothing has been as effective as Sunday’s action at Old Trafford. Without a bit of chaos—and certainly without the postponement of what would have been one of the season’s biggest games—that protest would have almost certainly been rendered a footnote.

Instead, the publicity has focused attention not only on the Glazers’ financial shenanigans but also on the broader need for reform in soccer, particularly for England to adopt the hybrid fan-ownership model that has found some success in Germany.

The protest was a reminder of how little has changed since the demise of the Super League—and how far away substantive change still is. Nothing has been done about the rot that had been eating away at the sport for years. Indeed, while the Super League charade was happening, European soccer’s governing body approved changes that would make the competition it was meant to replace, the Champions League, less competitive and more favorable to wealthy teams. While everyone was celebrating the fans regaining their voice, soccer’s status quo had, nevertheless, gotten worse.

There is, to be fair, a telling contradiction present in the scenes that played out at Old Trafford on Sunday. One of the most prominent criticisms of the Glazers is that they take money out of the club, instead of reinvesting their profits in the form of new signings. The idea behind #GlazersOut is that a new owner could come in and spend even more—contributing, in the process, to the larger inequities that have hurt the sport. This is perhaps best exemplified by one sign reading “Glazers out. Gazprom in,” a reference to the oil money that has brought success to Chelsea, Manchester City, and Paris Saint-Germain—oil money that is also eroding soccer.

But changing the ownership structure of soccer itself and introducing fan ownership would undoubtedly make that kind of spending much more difficult. It’s the paradoxical knot at the heart of these protests: Fans of big teams want financial changes, but they also want their teams to spend more. To put it another way, although I am skeptical of the 50+1 model and don’t think German soccer, dominated as it is by one team year after year, is a model of egalitarianism, I too would like major financial reform. And I would also like Liverpool, the team I support, to sign Kylian Mbappé.

But these complexities were too subtle for broadcast TV. Instead, a smashed tripod was shown again and again as a symbol of fans going too far. It was a sign of how little they are actually being listened to, even after the Super League debacle.