A Premier League Fight Intrudes on Euro 2024

A Premier League Fight Intrudes on Euro 2024

In front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, the street has been blanketed in artificial turf, and a set of gigantic goal posts has been erected. On the waterfront in Hamburg, two dozen shipping containers have been painted in the colors of the competing nations. Part of Leipzig’s zoo has been handed over for a program of cultural events, though presumably not the bit with the tigers.

Across Germany, the flags are being draped, the marketing plans are being finalized and anything bearing the logo of something other than one of UEFA’s official sponsors is being unceremoniously hidden from view. After six years of planning, the European soccer championship — Euro 2024 — is just a week away. The teams will start arriving imminently. The fans, in the hundreds of thousands, will follow close behind them.

For the rest of Europe, meanwhile, these are the glorious, hazy days before the carnival begins — a time filled with bunting and sticker albums, stirring television montages, speculative lineups and sweet nostalgia. Or, rather, they should be, because it is hard not to suspect that everyone is going through the motions.

It’s not that there is no appetite for a tournament traditionally outshone only by the World Cup. But it is definitely of the muted variety. All of the emotions ordinarily associated with one of soccer’s showpieces — hope, excitement, fear, wonder about how England will sabotage itself — have been overshadowed by something else, something closer to ennui.

The most immediate explanation for why that might be probably lies in soccer’s calendar, which has fallen out of sync in the last four years. The men’s World Cup ended only 18 months ago. The last men’s European Championship was three years ago, not four. The game’s body clock has gone awry. It is as if the sport as a whole is suffering from jet lag.

Much — though not all — of that can be attributed to soccer’s attempts to make up for time lost during the coronavirus pandemic. There has been an almost constant torrent of soccer since that unwanted break in 2020. The extent to which that has exhausted the players has been well documented, but the same logic applies to fans, too. The more games there are, the less they all seem to matter.

(This, certainly, is an issue affecting the Copa América, which also starts this month. Between 2011 and 2020, the Copa América seemed to take place almost constantly. They were never not playing the Copa América. After a while, it became very hard to get too worked up about it unless, presumably, your nation was involved, and even then it was a stretch.)

But there is a more immediate factor in soccer’s summer malaise, one that was laid bare on Tuesday, when The Times of London published details of Manchester City’s long-awaited legal action against the Premier League, a battle that has the potential — and this is not an exaggeration — to change the most popular sports league in the world beyond recognition.

City’s primary aim, as stated in 165 pages of court papers that are simultaneously grave and absurd, is to abolish the league’s rules on Associated Party Transactions, the catchy name given to sponsorship deals struck by clubs with companies linked to their owners.

City contends that those companies should be able to pay what they like for such deals, rather than something close to the market rate. The current rules, which require the latter, are anti-competitive, the club’s lawyers say, and if they are not lifted, then City will have no choice but to stop funding its women’s team and its community work. If that sounds like a naked threat, it’s because it is.

The possible consequences of what appears to be an off-puttingly technical case could be profound. Should Manchester City succeed in overturning the rules, it would mark the end for anything close to cost controls in the Premier League. That would give free rein to the club — and Newcastle, which like City is backed by what is in effect an agency of a nation state — to pump as much money into their coffers as they like.

In keeping with the spirit of the times, of course, City has dressed this up in populist rhetoric about overturning a hated and self-interested elite, and has thrown in a healthy dose of flawed libertarian economics. The reality is different: City’s aim is the abolition of any specter of competition.

Being able and willing to sink hundreds of millions of dollars into a soccer team without worrying about losses would be a prerequisite for success. Such an environment would, most likely, make the Premier League a spectacularly unattractive investment for anyone except other nation states. At least some of the American owners that currently populate the league would, most likely, have little choice but to call it quits.

Even if the case fails, the outlook is not much brighter. Later this year, City is scheduled to face — at long last — a hearing on the 115 charges it faces of breaching some of the league’s financial rules.

It has now not only questioned the legality of at least some of the rules under which it will be tried, but made it very clear that everything else is open to challenge, too. It is not that City wants to prove itself innocent of the charges. It wants to burn down the whole edifice that allowed it to be accused in the first place.

There is no obvious route back to smooth sailing for the Premier League from here. The league’s reality now is that it contains at least one team — its best team — that wants to abolish not only the rules but also the mechanism for making the rules. The legal documents describe the way the Premier League is run as a “tyranny of the majority.” (In this case, that appears to be a synonym for “democracy.”) City’s aim appears to be to turn it into a much more traditional form of tyranny.

But while the stakes are unquestionably high, the timing of the legal developments — a couple of weeks before the European Championship — felt significant, too. International soccer is not as accomplished as its club equivalent. Major tournaments are not, as they once were, a showcase for the game in its highest form, a place to see what the future looks like.

The international game’s appeal is precisely that it is different: a break from the endless churn of the club game, a switch in tone and focus and, to some extent, pace. It is an escape valve for the emotional pressure that builds up over the course of a long and arduous season. In its basest form, it gives everyone someone different to berate.

As the (appropriately) intense coverage of the Premier League’s most pressing existential tussle proved, though, the idea of a break from club soccer is anathema. This is not deliberate, of course: The Premier League has not decided to fall apart in June on purpose, simply because fans’ eyeballs were drifting elsewhere.

Instead, it is a function of how all-consuming the club game has become, how supporting a team no longer appears to be an occasional, passive leisure activity, but an active, full-time job — one that demands permanent attention and public performance, one that is inextricably entwined with your very sense of self.

In that landscape, a major tournament can never capture the imagination because the club season never ends, not really. There is always another managerial appointment, another player transfer, another attempt to reshape the rules of the league so that they meet your highly personal definition of fair.

That is not to say, of course, that Euro fever will not sweep the continent at some point in the next four weeks. By the time the latter stages roll around, eight countries, at least, will be fully engaged. But even as the prospect of glory draws ever closer, there will be a buzz, a noise in the background, an inescapable reminder that real life goes on, that the summer ends, that this is not the part of the game that really matters.

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