Soccer Needs to Break This Link

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A couple of Burnley players looked up at the sky. The drone of a single-engine plane circling low over the Etihad Stadium in Manchester had caught their attention, snapping their focus from the game against City in front of them. They squinted, trying to decipher the message trailing on the banner behind it. When they did so, they sighed, sadly, and shook their heads.

Micah Richards was standing by the side of the field when he saw it. Richards, the former Manchester City defender, was on duty for television that night. He, too, had spotted the banner, but had only glanced at its wording. Only when a steward, a despairing look on his face, asked him to look again did he realize it did not, after all, say Black Lives Matter, as Richards had thought. White Lives Matter, the message read. White Lives Matter Burnley.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the reaction was swift, and admirable. Burnley published a statement condemning the banner before halftime. After the game, the club’s captain, Ben Mee, informed interviewers he would discuss the result only after he had made it plain just how “embarrassed” he was, just how fiercely the club rejected the message the banner contained.

Sean Dyche, the team’s manager, was just as forthright. The views of the people who organized the flight did not match his values, he said, or the values of his club. Burnley vowed to work with all the relevant authorities to issue lifetime bans to anyone and everyone found to be involved.

A week or so earlier, as Britain emerged from lockdown into balmy June sunshine, London’s streets had roiled. After days and days of Black Lives Matter protests around the country, around the globe, after the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was dragged into the sea in Bristol, after a statue of Queen Victoria in Leeds was daubed with graffiti, a “counterprotest” was planned.

The quotation marks are relevant: In theory, people were marching to protect Britain’s beloved statues from those who had done them harm in the name of protesting against police brutality. In reality, they seemed to spend quite a lot of the time fighting, occasionally with each other, but mostly with the police. The message of their counterprotest was a little vague.

The nature of it, though, was not. The iconography, the songbook, the pattern of the “protest” that day was familiar: It belonged to, and was borrowed from, soccer. As they marched through the streets, they chanted, “England,” as they would have done had the national team been playing.

They called Winston Churchill “one of their own,” as if the country’s wartime leader was basically a colonialist Harry Kane. We had seen these scenes before, but usually on foreign streets, usually directed at foreign police forces. This was England abroad, but this time it was at home.

That familiarity made it easy, in the days that followed, to dismiss the violence and the disorder as the work of “football yobs.” That, after all, is precisely what they were, at least some of them: There were connections between some of the self-styled counterprotesters and the Football Lads Alliance, a sort of loose conglomeration of fan groups whose members spend their middle age cosplaying as hooligans.

There is a comfort in that, for the rest of the country. They allowed them to believe these people were soccer’s problem; if only soccer did not exist, or if only it got its house in order, then they would all just go away.

Such a reading, though, is unhelpful. Yes, a lot of the people there would consider themselves soccer fans. But from the look of it, a lot of them like potato chips, too, and sunburn and Nazism (they may not have understood that particular part of Churchill’s role in history).

Whether they like soccer or not is not especially relevant. They are a problem that belongs to Britain that — whether the rest of us in the country like it or not — represents a section of the population. Blaming soccer for their existence is to shirk responsibility.

But just as unhelpful is the other trope that emerged after the White Lives Matter plane flew over the Etihad. There is a tendency to suggest that people with such abhorrent views are not real soccer fans, that they are merely using soccer for their own ends, to sow their hatred and division. That, too, is passing the buck. It is soccer saying they are someone else’s problem.

The reality is that the far right has always seen soccer as not just fertile ground, but as its own territory. In the 1970s and ’80s, the far-right activists of the National Front hunted for new recruits on England’s terraces. The nationalism engendered by the national team meant black players were confronted by racists on official trips, as happened to John Barnes on a flight with England in South America in 1984.

Nor is it just an English problem. Ultra groups across Europe — with only occasional exceptions — skew to the right, even if the roots of the movement lie in the revolutionary leftism of the 1960s.

In England, the bond is not quite that explicit now, though the lyrics regularly heard during England’s fleeting visits to tournaments — as well as a slew of racist incidents in recent years — make it clear this is not a battle that has been won. Whether soccer wants them or not, whether soccer takes responsibility for them or not, much of the far right still regards the game as its natural home.

It is not enough for soccer’s authorities to divest themselves of responsibility for these incidents. It is not enough for fans to make clear that these people do not speak for them. There must, as the Black Lives Matter movement has made clear, be active opposition. It is not enough not to stand with; we must stand against.

That means not finding a frisson of excitement in the outlaw identity of ultras proudly bathing in the iconography of fascism. It means not fetishizing the days of hooliganism and casuals and firms, glibly writing their politics out of their violence. It means understanding that they do not believe they speak for the club, but that they speak for the fans. It means passing down through time stories of the damage they did, not the example they set.

The strange thing about the plane at the Etihad is that the stadium, that night, was empty. There were no fans to see it. The message got out only because the news media noticed it, reported it, spread it around.

The organizers of the stunt knew that would happen. They knew it would reach the people they wanted it to reach, somehow, because soccer is their game, the game that has always made them feel welcome, treated them as renegades and troublemakers, rather than racists and fascists. Enough, now. It is time to make it clear that it is not their game, and it never was.

These are red-letter days for Liverpool. On Wednesday night, Jürgen Klopp’s team dismantled Crystal Palace — producing a display of quite remarkable frenzy and firepower made all the more striking by its sterile backdrop — to move to within two points of a first Premier League title in 30 years. On Thursday, Chelsea beat Manchester City to deliver it.

That title was the crowning achievement of three extraordinary years: a Champions League final in 2018, a Champions League victory in 2019, an impressive challenge to Manchester City in the Premier League last year and a comprehensive rout of all rivals this season. Liverpool has been transformed over the last decade into an admirably modern club; these are the prizes on offer at the cutting edge.

The club’s women’s team, on the other hand, has just been relegated after years of neglect. Generally, contrasts between men’s and women’s soccer are unhelpful, but in this case it is, I think, relevant. To many, Liverpool has been “playing at” having a women’s team. It has invested substantially — 30 million pounds, or about $37 million, last year in payments to agents; not players, agents — in men’s soccer and left its women’s team, effectively, to sink or swim.

That charge is basically correct, but Liverpool’s explanation is worth examining. Liverpool, essentially, wants its women’s team to be sustainable. It does not want it to be reliant on regular cash infusions from the men’s game.

Personally, that strikes me as myopic. Twenty years ago, English men’s teams happily paid over the market rate for foreign stars because they recognized they would make the league more glamorous in the long term. Women’s soccer, in Europe, is at that stage now. Owners are speculating to accumulate.

But long term, it is worth asking if Liverpool has a point. It is not healthy for the women’s game to be financed by the men’s, to be reliant on the men’s for its income, to be vulnerable to the shifting priorities of men’s clubs, as happened at Liverpool. The future for women’s soccer is not in being an offshoot of men’s soccer. It does have to be self-sustaining. It is in the interests of everyone to work out how that can happen.

Impossible as it would have seemed even two months ago, this weekend the Bundesliga will become the first of Europe’s major leagues to finish its season on the field. It is not, admittedly, quite the dramatic final day we might have hoped for — Bayern, being Bayern, does not allow such things to happen — but there is no shortage of intrigue.

First, there is the battle for the Bundesliga’s final Champions League slot. RB Leipzig is effectively secure — as long as it does not lose by 25 goals or so at Augsburg — and Borussia Mönchengladbach will join Julian Nagelsmann’s team if it can avoid defeat at home to Hertha Berlin. If not, Bayer Leverkusen is waiting to pounce: It must beat Mainz to have any hope of capitalizing.

At the bottom, things are even more fraught. Werder Bremen needs to win at home to Cologne — ideally by more than four goals — and hope Fortuna Düsseldorf does not beat Union Berlin to retain its place in the top flight. It would be quite a fall from grace, considering Werder Bremen was the German champion as recently as 2004.

In England, it’s an F.A. Cup weekend, with four relatively attractive quarterfinals, but it may be a welcome chance to indulge in the championship. West Bromwich Albion faces Brentford on Friday night, before Leeds United plays Fulham on Saturday. This weekend will go a long way toward deciding which of those teams is promoted to the Premier League for next season.

Barcelona has a crucial match at Celta Vigo in Spain — the momentum in the title race has swung toward Real Madrid. But almost as soon as Saturday’s game has finished, it may be worth tuning in to Atalanta’s meeting with Sassuolo in Italy. Both clubs scored three on Wednesday night. Expect chaos.

We’ll start this week, I think, with perhaps the most poetic piece of correspondence I’ve ever received, from Brion Fox. He offers the parable of the cherry blossom as a reading of whether soccer lives up to our false memories. “One could spend one’s whole life looking for the perfect cherry blossom and it would not be a life wasted. One would realize at the end, however, that they were all perfect.”

As Brion observes: “We do not look at sunsets for the spectacular but for their intrinsic beauty. Each one we see can fill us with a sense of the glory that exists in the world. Sure, occasionally there may be spectacular thunderstorms in another part of the sky, the elusive green flash, or a flock of birds perfectly silhouetted, but we return for the mundane.”

Brion’s particular sunset is the N.W.S.L. and the United States’ national team — the good one, not the bad one — which, by allowing him to watch “remarkable athletes think and work through a game,” offers a “couple hours of peace.”

I didn’t feel quite the same grinding through Leicester and Brighton’s 0-0 draw the other day, but then Susan Lauman was on hand to remind me that “watching live soccer is thrilling, even when it’s boring: I so admire the hard-earned skills of the players, the hard-boiled attitudes of the referees. The ugliness of the gigantic soccer business is disheartening, but it does not diminish the sheer joy and intense concentration of the players themselves.”

Fortunately, Graham Jackson offers a reminder of the aforementioned ugliness of the soccer-industrial complex. “Why did Arsenal have to wear away colors when visiting Manchester City?” he asked. “Arsenal’s traditional red and white would have been a better contrast with Man City’s sky blue. The same goes for all the Premier League matches: why do visiting teams wear second strips when their home jersey looks best.”

Deep down, Graham knows the answer. We all do. How would they sell their away jerseys if they never wore them? Soccer is, in part, essentially a product placement exercise.

Maybe I should have done those the other way round, and finished on a positive note. That’s all for this week. Please keep your parables, haiku and observations about attire coming to Twitter is here, as ever; Instagram here; and Set Piece Menu there. Here, as you know, is where to send all the people you meet in snaking lines at the grocery store.

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