When the Owner Isn’t the (Only) Problem
Michael Eisner has not, by the standards of English soccer, been a bad owner. He has not burdened Portsmouth, the third-tier club he and his sons bought almost six years ago, with colossal, asphyxiating debt. He has not sold off its historic stadium to build apartments. Nor has he plastered it with the lurid branding of his other businesses.
He is not a cowboy seeking a quick buck or a crony looking for a laundry or a rampant egotist desperate for an audience. For all that Disney World might not be subject to quite the same laws as the rest of Florida, Eisner himself is not a nation state with a reputation to enhance or some flagrant human rights violations to disguise.
The 80-year-old Eisner is not even a bad owner by the troubled standards of Portsmouth, though that is, admittedly, a relatively low bar: Eisner surpassed at least one of his predecessors by being definitively, provably real. He has not run the club into the ground. He has demonstrated, for a time, at least, a genuine desire to understand both the team and the place, and a sincere warmth toward both.
He has not haphazardly hired players or ruthlessly sold off anyone who displays the slightest hint of promise. He has not wheeled carelessly through managers: In six years, he has employed only three — one, John Mousinho, so fresh that he has yet to be confirmed officially — and both of the first two were rational, credible appointments.
And yet, for all that, when Portsmouth faces Exeter City on Saturday at Fratton Park, its evocative and somewhat ramshackle stadium, the stands will bubble with dissatisfaction. At least one group of fans has organized a “peaceful” protest against Tornante, Eisner’s investment vehicle, accusing the former Disney executive and his co-owners of having both no ambition and no plan.
There is a current of mutiny running through English soccer. Last weekend, Everton fans staged a sit-in protest against the club’s board, holding aloft signs calling for the dismissals of the chairman, the chief executive and even the finance director, a man whom a reasonable proportion of Goodison Park will have had to Google to identify.
Leicester City’s fans have not gone for the finance director so far, but there were murmurs of dissent against the owners during its defeat to Nottingham Forest last Saturday. There is talk of protests at Tottenham Hotspur, and it is only a few months since Leeds United fans were demanding the resignation of their club’s board.
Their Portsmouth counterparts have not gone that far, not yet. Their complaints, laid out in a detailed, lucid statement released on Thursday, are distinctly reasonable. When Eisner bought the club from a fans’ consortium that had rescued it from the brink of liquidation, he outlined a plan to turn Portsmouth into a sustainable, successful club. If all the club wanted was to drift aimlessly along in League One, he said, he was not the guy.
Drift, though, is precisely what has happened. Portsmouth remains exactly where Eisner found it. He has expanded the stadium by a couple of thousand seats, but not enough to make a difference to its budget. There has been similarly scant progress on its youth system. Essentially, the fan coalition would like Tornante to explain how it plans to fulfill its own promises.
The circumstances at all of these clubs might be bespoke, but the pattern of dissatisfaction illustrates a broader truth.
It is possible (and for a long time served as orthodoxy) to see soccer as a contest between players: the ideas they conjure, the moments of inspiration they experience, the instincts they follow, the mistakes they make. In this reading, it is a game, essentially, of physical and mental skill.
It is also possible, though, to view it more as a test of strategy: the key figures, in this interpretation, are not the players but the coaches, the gurus and the visionaries and the ideologues who determine and refine the style and the approach and the tactics. The players, in much modern analysis, are treated essentially as automatons, carrying out their assigned tasks by rote, little more than pixels on a screen.
Increasingly, though, it feels as if neither of those analyses encapsulates what English soccer, in particular, has become. The coaches and the players a club employs all exist downstream of the figure whose beneficence and engagement determines its horizons. The cutthroat, hyper-capitalist environment that the Premier League has engendered has turned soccer, effectively, into an owners’ game.
That a team’s fate is tied, irrevocably, to its economic outlook is no great insight: The richest teams, after all, can attract the finest coaches, who in turn find themselves given a chance to work with the best players. (Whether it should be this way is an entirely different question, of course.)
But paper wealth, alone, is not enough. It is, in fact, meaningless unless it is accompanied by a plan. Everton, its recent recruitment history a monument to waste, stands as the most potent example of that. But Leicester, Tottenham and even Portsmouth, in their own way, are suffering from the same affliction. Their owners all presumably have a destination in mind. None of them seem to know, precisely, how they want to get there.
Given that the two biggest clubs in English soccer — Manchester United and Liverpool — are currently searching for new investors, the discontent at Goodison Park and Fratton Park and elsewhere is worth contemplating.
It would be easy to assume that the best owner for either United or Liverpool would be whichever suitor has the most zeros in their bank account. It would be equally easy to suggest that the only contenders to be avoided are those who trail either debt or ethical doubt in their wake. (Alas, those in category A are almost certain to feature in category B.)
That is, though, just the start. As much as it is the financial primacy of a prospective owner that tends to fire fans’ imagination most quickly and most vividly, it is more often how they choose to use it that separates those who are welcomed with open arms from those who are greeted with pointed fingers.
At Portsmouth, Michael Eisner has not been a bad owner. He has not done anything wrong, in particular. It is just that, in the eyes of the fans, he has not done the things that he promised he would, and now they fear that, somewhere in the middle of six years of stasis, he has lost interest.
When Portsmouth’s fans ceded control of the club, they did so on the understanding that this was the surest way to take their team out of League One, back on the way to the Premier League. That it has not done so is not, in all likelihood, solely down to Eisner. Perhaps the players have underperformed, too. Perhaps the managers have not delivered on their potential. But it is an owners’ game, now, and that means everyone knows who to blame.
It is hard to know which detail in Sara Björk Gunnarsdottir’s account of how her club, the fabled Lyon’s women’s team, treated her during her pregnancy is most damning. It is probably the one where the team did not pay her. Or it might be the one in which she was threatened with ostracism if she chose to chase that unpaid salary all the way to FIFA.
Or, perhaps, it was the moment in which Gunnarsdottir, the Iceland captain, was told that under no circumstances would she, a breastfeeding mother, be allowed to bring her infant son with her to away games. What if he cried, as babies famously do, on the bus or the plane, thus disturbing the rest of the squad?
Gunnarsdottir’s story has, in some way, a happy ending: Last year, a tribunal ruled that Lyon was required to pay her every cent she was owed; she has since left the club and has resumed her elite career at Juventus; her son, Ragnar, is 15 months, which means he is old enough to marvel at the world but too young to offer a constant stream of opinions on everything.
More than anything, though, her experience is a reminder — as Gunnarsdottir herself has said — that there is still much to be done on the “culture” of women’s soccer; or, more precisely, on how soccer sees and treats the women who play it professionally.
There are plenty of times when the breakneck speed at which women’s soccer has grown in recent years provides a mitigating circumstance for structural shortcomings, when it is possible to feel some sympathy for those having to build the plane while at 30,000 feet. Gunnarsdottir’s case is not one of them. This one, ultimately, is pretty basic.
Andrea Agnelli is, ultimately, correct. “European soccer needs a new system,” he said this week, in a speech marking his departure as the chairman of Juventus. Without it, he said, the landscape of the game will shift so that “a single, dominant league will, within a few years, attract all the talent,” thereby “completely marginalizing the others.”
It is not hard to discern what he is talking about — the hegemony of the Premier League — and it is even harder to deny its accuracy. Chelsea alone has spent more this January than the clubs of the Bundesliga, La Liga and Serie A combined. Bournemouth, an English minnow but an apex predator on the continent, is busy acquiring reinforcements at $25 million a pop from teams in France. The Premier League is, slowly and loudly, eating the competition.
What is — what has always been — so frustrating with Agnelli, though, are the bits he does not say, the bits he does not see.
The Premier League’s supremacy is not some accident of fate. Yes, it has two inbuilt advantages that give it a head-start: It is conducted entirely in English, and it was the first league to design itself as a television product. But its competitors could still mimic at least some of its appeal: the sleek, modern backdrop; the glossy marketing; the sense of competition.
That they have not is not despite Agnelli and those like him but because of them. When he talks about a new system, he does not mean finding a way to help Italian clubs build new stadiums, or develop young talent, or adopt cost controls to bring competitive balance. He is not investigating innovative ways to build new audiences, or more equitably share television revenue, so that Serie A’s Bournemouths might grow, too.
No, what Agnelli means is that he wants to change the rules of the game so that Juventus is given more money, more protection, and everyone else can go and rot. Agnelli is not, in fact, worried about marginalization in the slightest. If anything, he is all for it, just so long as he is the one doing the marginalizing.
There was, as George Sundell pointed out, an omission from my list of recommendations for Ellen Johnson, who wrote seeking a guidebook for her new soccer fandom: the Women’s World Cup in July and August. “Ellen might get a thrill viewing how magnificently the teams can play in that contest,” George wrote.
No arguments here, of course — the World Cup was excluded only because it is still six months away — and this edition should be even more compelling than normal, given that the European teams, in particular, (seem to) have closed the gap so substantially on the United States.
David Theiler, meanwhile, has an idea to improve that old correspondence section stalwart: the offside law. It is a relatively simple one, too: Why not thicken the line used by the video assistant referee to adjudicate if a player is offside? “It would allow a more generous interpretation,” he wrote. “A wider range makes it easier to see what is well offside.”
The problems with offside are now so many and varied, David, that I’m not sure any one measure would solve them all, but this would be a good place to start. I believe that the Dutch, ever the forward-thinkers, have already run at least one trial with a substantially thicker line to see if it makes any difference.
And Bruce Munro has something to get off his chest as regards celebrating goals. Lavish celebrations — players sprinting off, tearing their jerseys from their shoulders, sliding on their knees and so forth — have become “routine,” he wrote, “and I don’t remember that to have always been the case. Is it because of television? Where is the proportion? Is there any sense of foolishness if the scorer’s team goes on to lose the game?”
As a rule, I’m happy to let people celebrate as they wish, but this is a subject that intrigues me, too. It may well be that it is playing up to the cameras, though I wonder if it is better thought of as a learned behavior: Players celebrate goals that way because that is what players celebrating goals looks like.
It is striking, certainly, when someone goes against the grain, as Crystal Palace’s Michael Olise did this week. Perhaps his (rumored) policy would appeal to Bruce: He only celebrates goals that either put his team in the lead, or extend its advantage. Otherwise, he walks impassive back to the center circle, ready to resume.