After Manchester City’s victory on Saturday, Sunday seemed like a defining day in the Premier League (PL) title race. Liverpool and Manchester United, historic rivals, were to face each other. If Liverpool won, Man City would take the title. If United won, they would live to fight another week, not yet mathematically out of action.
After hours of delay, Sunday afternoon, the match was postponed to May 13.
Around 1,000 Manchester United fans gathered on match day to protest outside the club’s home, Old Trafford, blocking the entrance to the stadium. About 100 broke through the barriers and scaled the walls, eventually making their way through the empty land. About 200 protesters also appeared outside the LOwry Hotel, where Man United players and coaches were staying, not allowing the team to leave for the game.
Greater Manchester Police declaration Sunday night described escalating tensions.
“Those in the stadium were kicked out by officers, but outside on the forecourt, hostility increased with bottles and barriers thrown at officers and horses,” the statement said. “Two officers were injured and one officer was attacked with a bottle and suffered a serious facial injury, requiring emergency hospital treatment.”
The protests were inspired by the anger aroused by the deceased European Super League (ESL) proposal, in which twelve clubs, including Man United, have attempted to part ways with some of football’s existing structures and form their own exclusive league. ESL is said to have cemented financial and competitive inequalities in European football. Fans were widely opposed to the pursuit of excessive profits perceived at the expense of the club’s historical traditions, relationships and competitive values.
Like many protests, however, Sunday’s protest was an expression of both immediate concerns and deeper, longer-term grievances. A significant part of the Man United fan base called on the owners Malcolm Glazer and his family to sell the club since the Americans bought it in 2005. The Glazers have put Man U in debt hundreds of millions of dollars as part of a leveraged buyout and earned significant salaries each year that could be reinvested in the aging team or stadium. Fans feel they are not investing enough in the team and communicate poorly. The crowds protested in 2005 and they are protesting now. Sunday’s protest came a week after protests over similar issues outside Arsenal stadium last week.
As with any event, it is difficult to make general statements about the crowd. Many were calling on the Glazers to sell the club. Some have demanded the establishment of the 50 + 1 rule, a German policy that requires supporters to be the majority collective owners of clubs.
Some supporters crossed barriers, entered the stadium, ran onto the pitch and had tense discussions with the police. There were also people who brought their children, clearly believing the event to be relatively safe and low-key.
Apparently some protesters had a pre-planned plan to break into the stadium. Others had clearly come forward to offer their support and sing Manchester United songs.
American sports fans are generally used to the idea that the franchises they support are national or global brands meant to make money, not to represent their values ââand history. It is common, for example, for an owner to move a franchise to a new city. It’s painful for the fans and there can be some form of pullback, but there is usually a feeling of resignation. Organized fan protests are rare in the United States, and when they do occur, they are usually a reaction to poor performance, not the business practices of the owners. Such protests originate much more from English football and European football in general.
This misunderstanding has led sections of the US media to compare the Old Trafford protests to political or social protests. Understandably, compared to the deep social issues that often trigger protests in the United States, disruptive protests over single sports seem insane. Destruction of property during political protests, such as the one that occurred during the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, could be seen as incidental to the expression of legitimate grievances. Violence or destruction of any kind triggered by an attempted sports business decision, by comparison, seems absurd and unnecessary.
This cultural divide helps explain why so many American experts (or experts working for American companies) have called fan actions “”extreme, “dangerous, “or considering”horrible scenes. In other words, it was a ‘riot’, a good cause that would have been taken too far into extremism and now undermine the message.
Commentators reporting the latest news on NBCSN, the television rights holders of the American Premier League, have repeatedly used this criminal language. Experts have alluded to the hooliganism, organized fan violence, usually perpetrated by young white men, which hit English football in the 1970s and ’80s and made stadiums dangerous.
Hooliganism itself has probably been misunderstood, but that’s not what the events on Sunday were anyway. There was some minor violence and intimidation, but it was a legitimate protest. Violence was not the goal. Some fans got on the field and ran.
Commentators working for NBCSN were quick to condemn the Super League. And yet, they became disgusted when a protest caused the cancellation of a PL game, the product with which they make money. The protests were largely about the Super League. Did they really care in the first place?
With the notable exception of two of PL’s most famous pundits, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher, some British pundits and writers have also condemned the protest. Even in a more familiar cultural context, not everyone will support the protesters.
Manchester United fans, in this case, are more likely than American sports fans to see their club as a community institution, something shared and representative of who they are and where they belong, even in a league-run. by billionaires. There is much less acceptance that clubs should be treated as businesses designed to make money for shareholders. When this relationship is violated so badly, fans get angry. They feel trapped.
If people care deeply about something, but feel they haven’t been heard or taken care of through normal channels, they react. They disturb. When the police walk on them, violence becomes somewhat inevitable.
Without endorsing the violence itself, the American podcaster Elliot Smith clearly characterized the probable emotional state of the demonstrators.
“[This is] a group of people who have been locked in their homes for a year, whose livelihoods have been affected, whose social engagement has been reduced to essentially a digital world where everything is more emotional and focused on anger then the latter fiber of something they really care about – someone is trying to cut this, and it looks like a drop of water, âSmith said.
For over a year, Premier League fans have not been able to watch their teams play live. Home fans in particular have felt emotionally disconnected from their clubs because they are physically disconnected. Sport is all about rituals: taking the same train, going to the same pub, sitting near the same people and singing the same songs. Whether a fan has attended a handful of games or holds a lifetime membership, the relationships one can make with people and places are powerful and unique. Without them, the game can feel empty and impersonal.
The disconnect between club owners and fans intensified two weeks ago, when club owners were ready to radically change football clubs and institutions without consulting their clubs.‘ Fans.
Breaking into Old Trafford is therefore not necessarily a foolish act, meant to express anger and nothing more. It can also be read as a form of recovery. In sports, stadiums are the most natural place for a fan to express himself. They can clap, but they can also look to the owner’s box and boo. Songs and banners can be loving and uplifting or they can be uplifting and confrontational.
Of course, too, there are many ways to protest. As mentioned, many of the people in Old Trafford just gathered and chanted in safety. Others have cleverly started to shed Man U sponsors.
Whether or not the trespassing at Old Trafford was “correct”, some participants understood that this was the best and perhaps the only option available to them. Unless the Glazers and future Super League owners like them are no longer responsive to fan requests, the anger will only escalate.
Will Slater can be reached at [email protected].