(Photo, Wikimedia Commons)
There are two principles involved. The first: the modern religion of football. For millions, it is a rallying cry that substitutes for the “real” kind of Christianity, Islam, or Buddhism.
Of course, many Christians, Muslims and Buddhists adhere to their religious principles but still follow football clubs.
Why? They are part of a living community and weekends can be intoxicating ones for bringing some cheer, or pain, into their utilitarian lives.
They feel part of something larger then themselves. Hence, why loyal fans of clubs like Chelsea, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona carry water for them the year round.
We can dismiss this as simple spectacle, until you realize what meaning it brings to otherwise meaningless lives. This is not a condemnation, but a fact.
The second principle involves leveraged takeovers. This was a big strategy in the 1980s, when financiers bought companies using the corporations’ very own cash flow and reserves to do so. The collateral pledged to get a bank loan for the buy-out was the bought company itself.
It was a brilliant scheme, since it allowed the skillful and not very rich to become very, very rich.
But what often happened was that the leveraged company soon became a shell of itself. In order to pay the outrageous interest rates on the loan, employees were shed and cost-cutting became the norm.
Suddenly, highly managed companies with excellent reputations and strong community standing saw themselves become ravaged by low morale, vicious cost reductions and a cruel emphasis on the bottom line that eventually led these once stalwart companies to become mere buildings.
Then they were sold to a huge conglomerate, for a large profit, which went to the financiers and not those that originally built the company.
To watch how this has happened to one of the great sporting clubs of the world is to see sadness in slow motion. When the Glazer Family took over Manchester United in 2005, they used not their own money but the club’s own resources to buy them out.
They leveraged the club for huge loans to make the purchase, making the Man U responsible for the debt rather than the Glazers.
What this meant in practical terms is that financial resources that should have gone back to the club to buy high quality players were instead paying off the interest to greedy bankers.
In David Conn’s excellent article in The Guardian, the entire ruthless edifice is exposed. All the history, all the traditions, all the family rights and celebrations, all the sacrifices, all the sweat, toil and tears that went into making the club what it is today – perhaps the largest club in the world – suddenly vanished in the financial shenanigans of the Glazer Family.
While Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge, these cracks in the wall were hidden because he had the management skill and toughness to see teams through to winning trophies. When he retired in Spring, 2013, the bottom dropped out of the bag.
His replacement, the man he himself chose, David Moyes, was a risky bet even if on the surface it seemed like a wise decision. Both Scotsmen, both bread out of tough backgrounds, both disciplinarians, both football men to the bone.
Under a skillful executive, Moyes would have thrived. Had David Gill remained for another year or two, rather than retiring at the same time as Ferguson, Moyes would not have floundered but found the players and space he needed to r refashion the team.
Instead, Gill left and was replaced by a marketing wiz, Ed Woodward, who knows football about as much as does U.S. President Barack Obama.
Woodward got the sponsors, because that’s what marketing mavens do – they get the deals. They know the sizzle. What they don’t know, what they need to be reminded about, is that there has to be something substantive behind the smoke.
The more Woodward focuses on getting new sponsorships (some, like Aeroflot, at a time when Russia was responsible for the downing of the Malaysian Airline flight over Ukraine last month killing nearly 300 souls, this seems particularly galling and crass), the less he seems to care about the team on the pitch that makes the club function.
The new manager, Louis van Gaal, was brought in to help, but even he saw the rot right away. He complained about the focus on commerciality in his very first press conference, noting that clubs are made on the pitch not on billboards.
Of course, the warning fell on deaf ears. Woodward will see to that. Van Gaal will be out before the commercial activity is slowed.
For now, we will be told by club officials that van Gaal is bringing in new players (Marcos Rojo from Sporting Lisbon the latest) to beef up the club.
Any child can see that Man United needs more than just a few new players – it needs a complete rebuilt. It’s one thing to lose to Swansea City (not an accident, by the way, since City is a good team!), it will be another when the same happens to Sunderland this Sunday and Burnley to follow. Then things get ugly real fast.
“Van Gaal always starts slow!”the narrative will go. And Man U fans will thus be told to wait and be patient, as happened when David Moyes was installed (told by none other than Ferguson himself). When months go by and the losses mount, and even when a mad genius like van Gaal can’t save the club, then somehow the truth may soon be revealed: a great club has fallen into ill repute.
Other clubs have passed them by: Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Everton, even Arsenal. And when players like Thomas Muller turn down vast sums to play for Man U, you know the rot isn’t just visible to pundits like me. Players smell a rat, too.
The Glazers will refuse to sell. Several years go by, with Man U rising up and down on the mid-table, then sometime around 2020, they will throw in the towel when fans have simply given up on the team and stopped buying the over-priced tickets.
By then, even the sponsors will have left. And what will then happen to the club? It will be folded into Fox Sports and become what finally happened to Elvis Presley – a Las Vegas lounge act with too much booze and drugs in him.
Meanwhile, the Glazers will be busy counting their millions and totally oblivious to the gutting of the club.
One day we may all be saying : Man U who?