As another football season kicks off, it’s worth asking: Why does the Premier League exist? A cynic could answer, “To make money,” and they wouldn’t be wrong. Over the course of 2021–2022, the Premier League pocketed $6.2 billion, more than twice as much as any other football league in Europe. When speaking for itself on its own website, the Premier League says, “In the early 1990s, English First Division clubs believed that a radical restructuring of football was needed if they and the game in general were to develop and flourish.”
What issues afflicted the sport, causing the First Division to become what is now the Premier League? The short answer is: a lack of financial surplus. It turns out that the “radical restructuring of football” the sport so badly needed was a prerequisite to funneling boatloads of money into the pockets of owners. This is where the happily received overtures of the Saudi Arabian Professional Football League come into play and, in Liverpool’s case, cause acute anxiety.
Perhaps more than any other team, the Liverpool Football Club’s journey and role in these recent shifts exemplify the complex relationship between soccer’s traditional roots and the demands of the modern game. The history around the game in Liverpool marks it as having the most left-leaning history and culture within the Premier League.
The most famous manager in the club’s history, Bill Shankly, was fondest of two things in life: football and socialism. “I believe the only way to live and to be truly successful is by collective effort, with everyone working for each other, everyone helping each other, and everyone having a share of the rewards at the end of the day,” he once said. “That might be asking a lot, but it’s the way I see football and the way I see life.”
Liverpool has tried to recruit managers that live by similar principles. The current manager, the German Jürgen Klopp, has not been shy about his political allegiances. “I’m on the left, of course,” he told journalist Raphael Honigstein. “More left than middle. I believe in the welfare state. I’m not privately insured. I would never vote for a party because they promised to lower the top tax rate. . . . My political understanding is this: if I am doing well, I want others to do well, too. If there’s something I will never do in my life it is vote for the right.”
The recent decisions made by the club and its players in relation to the Saudi Arabian Professional Football League’s enticements reflect the broader tension between the sport’s loyalty to its working-class heritage and the pursuit of filthy lucre.
Weaker Squads, Heavier Wallets
The Saudi Arabian Professional Football League’s raids on the Premier League and other European leagues gathered spectacular momentum over the summer, as noted in July in these pages. This has provoked another round of existential hand-wringing about the pernicious effect of big money on the sport. Across Europe, a substantial roster of departures has emerged, featuring notable names such as Karim Benzema, Cristiano Ronaldo, N’Golo Kanté, Rúben Neves, Kalidou Koulibaly, Riyad Mahrez, and more.
For decades, the European leagues scoured the entire world for talent. The Saudi league has now come knocking on Europe’s door. And, in fact, the cash infusion will doubtless help many of the clubs become stronger than they might otherwise have been.
However, the optimistic and pragmatic outlook held by many fans toward these profitable deals became untenable when the Saudi league accomplished the recruitment of Jordan Henderson, the captain of Liverpool.
Although Henderson’s transfer may not have been the most high-profile in terms of global recognition or skill level, it has generated the most significant fan consternation. Losing an inspirational on-pitch leader is surely not how Klopp would have wanted to prepare for a new season. The strongest backlash was evident among fans in the LGBTQ community, for whom Henderson had been a passionate ally.
Jordan Chamberlain is the editor of Empire of the Kop, a popular website covering news of the club. He moved to Liverpool from Australia at the age of five, now works in London, and continues to enthusiastically support Liverpool, traveling to games whenever he can. He speaks for many when he says, “It just leaves you feeling a little empty.”
In Saudi Arabia, Henderson will be playing for another former Liverpool captain, Steven Gerrard, now manager of Al-Ettifaq. Roberto Firmino and Fabinho, other Liverpool legends, left this summer for Al-Ahli and Al-Ittihad, respectively.
Of Henderson’s situation, Chamberlain is particularly scathing. “He has shown blatant hypocrisy to take money from a state in which being gay is potentially punishable by death.”
Football Before and After the Hillsborough Tragedy
Given the heady heights reached by the sport in recent decades, it’s worthwhile to recall that football began as a grassroots sport with widespread support among England’s working classes. As comedian Alf Garnett once quipped, “Football is working-class ballet.”
Established in 1863 at the Freemasons Arms, where visitors can still enjoy a pint today, the Football Association (FA) stands as the world’s oldest professional league. It was there that the foundational rules were agreed upon and codified. Over time, the system of divisions developed, with teams either moving up or down based on points earned through competitive matches in the season. Division One became home of powerhouses such as Arsenal, Newcastle, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton, and others. The best of these teams also competed in Europe in the competition now known as the Champions League.
The FA held its most prestigious event, the FA Cup, even as World War I ravaged continental Europe in 1915. Several years later, in 1921, the cup final pitted Bolton Wanderers against West Ham United at Wembley Stadium. Public interest in the event was so great that it exceeded the stadium’s capacity of 127,000, with a crowd almost twice that size in attendance. Due to the overwhelming turnout, the kickoff was delayed by forty-five minutes. Consequently, a mandatory ticketing system was instituted for all subsequent cup finals. English football was to witness far worse than this.
By the 1960s, in large part fueled by England’s World Cup victory of 1966, football was wildly popular. However, as the 1980s dawned, the Football Association entered its bleakest period. The sport was plagued by violence — hooliganism — inside and outside the stands. Meanwhile, many stadiums were in a state of decay and posed safety concerns. In a tragic incident in 1985 at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, Liverpool fans clashed with supporters of the Italian club Juventus, causing a partitioning wall to collapse. Thirty-nine fans were killed, most of them Italian. As a result of the tragedy, English clubs were banned from European competition for several years.
But football’s most tragic chapter was yet to unfold. In 1989, during the FA Cup’s semifinal between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest, a devastating incident occurred at Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield. A huge crowd gathered at the Leppings Lane turnstiles, and to ease the mounting pressure, a police chief ordered the opening of an exit gate, allowing around two thousand Liverpool fans to pour into the already overcrowded terraces. Ninety-six men, women, and children were killed as a result of the crush. From the outset, false narratives clouded the truth of the tragedy. The police chief alleged that Liverpool fans had forcibly opened the gate, while a headline from the Sun’s falsely claimed that fans had “urinated on police officers” and “picked the pockets of the dead.”
Decades of legal battles, many initiated by bereaved and grieving families, ensued. The most recent inquest, concluded in April 2016, unveiled the truth of the matter: “fans played no part in the deaths.” Instead the tragedy was attributed to a culmination of factors “police failures, stadium design faults, and a delayed response by the ambulance service.”
The Hillsborough tragedy was English football’s nadir, yet the fans did not get much sympathy from the Conservative government of the day, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. As Andy Lyons put it in the Guardian, in the eyes of the Conservatives, “football fans were as much of a menace as striking trade unionists.” The disasters that had unfolded at Heysel and Hillsborough were perceived purely as problems of law and order — of a world in decline marked by uncouth working-class lawlessness.
In the 1990s, the sport underwent a swift process of gentrification. The Taylor Report, the result of the first inquiry into Hillsborough, recommended that stadiums be renovated to improve safety. This meant the removal of perimeter and lateral fencing, which had been so brutally hazardous at Hillsborough, and the replacing of open terraces with proper seating. The inception of Premier League in 1992, which came with a lucrative television deal, provided many teams the essential resources to upgrade their stadiums to meet contemporary standards.
Since 1992, England football’s rise has been meteoric. The Premier League is now the most-watched league in the world. However, the perpetual tug-of-war between upholding the sport’s grassroots origins and its working-class fan base, juxtaposed with the pursuit of maximum profits, remains an enduring challenge.
As Chamberlain says, “All big football teams struggle with keeping the local supporters happy and provided with tickets at the same time as monetizing the global opportunities that a global fan base provides.”
The amount of money in football has become, in and of itself, a sore point. In England, the theoretical concept of “social mobility” for clubs, despite relegation and promotion rules, often falls short in practice. There is an entrenched elite of moneyed clubs that can buy and maintain success. “Financial fair play” (FFP) rules were put in place to try and curb excess — “to ensure clubs do not spend more money than they earn” — but these rules have mostly failed, and football clubs are increasingly the playthings of billionaires.
The past decade has exposed the woeful shortcomings of financial fair play regulations. A glaring example lies in Manchester City, owned by Sheikh Mansour, who has poured unprecedented billions into the club’s resources. Similarly, Newcastle United has secured partial ownership from the Saudi Arabia state-run Public Investment Fund.
“This is state-backed, bottomless money pit stuff,” Chamberlain points out. “Jordan Henderson had his head turned. If he can be swayed, literally anyone can. It’s dangerous.”
Fans — few more vocal or tenacious than Liverpool’s — still exert pressure on the clubs they love. A case in point occurred in February 2016, when Liverpool staged a walkout at the seventy-seventh minute of a match in protest of a rise in match tickets from £59 to £77. Liverpool’s ownership group abandoned the price hike. Such actions underscore how fans play a crucial role in maintaining accountability within the club.
However, in the vast realm of international finance, fans now face one of their most formidable adversaries. The infinite money machine at play presents a complex, near impossible challenge that transcends all the traditional dynamics of the sport.