Can Democracy Work in Soccer?

These may be the last days in office for Josep Maria Bartomeu, Barcelona’s embattled, unpopular president. An insurgent group, frustrated by the decline of the team and furious at how close the club came to losing the star forward Lionel Messi, has succeeded in collecting the signatures of more than 16,000 members required to call for a vote of no confidence in his board. The walls are closing in.

Bartomeu must now choose an interim candidate to take his post while he awaits the results of a referendum on his leadership. If he survives that vote, he will remain in his post until the club holds elections in March. If he does not — if 66 percent of those who vote turn against him — he will be deposed, and the presidential election will be brought forward to January.

Or, as one of the leaders of the movement against him, Jordi Farre, said, Bartomeu could fall on his sword. He could resign, saving himself the ordeal of a toxic election campaign that would serve only to heighten divisions with the club and its fan base, and take his board — the board that almost cost the club the greatest player in its history — with him.

This is, of course, how it is meant to work; something close to a Platonic ideal of how a club should be run. Bartomeu is — rightly or wrongly — accused of overseeing the institutional failures that have turned Barcelona into a shell of its former self. Its finances are at their limit. Its squad is dire need of rejuvenation.

Bartomeu’s judge and his jury on those charges will be the club’s fans, or at least its members. Barcelona, like three other teams in Spain — Athletic Bilbao, Osasuna and Real Madrid — as well as the vast majority of clubs in Germany, Turkey and Sweden (and at many major clubs in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay) is a democracy.

There is power, but there is also control. There is accountability, in a way essentially impossible in the “ownership neutral” world of English soccer, where each club exists as an entity part way between a business and a fief. And that is, without question, A Good Thing.

But it is also only one side of the story. Because while democracy provides the mechanism that allows Barcelona’s members to wrest power from Bartomeu, it also may explain quite how it all came to this.

Bartomeu was never seen as a president in waiting. He rose to power almost by accident, the next-in-line, the continuity candidate after a suite of controversies and scandals had forced the removal or resignations of those above him. Once he was in place, though, it was the nature of Barcelona — the electoral model that makes it, in part, mes que un club — that made his mistakes, if not inevitable, then certainly incentivized.

In theory, of course, an elected president should think about a club’s long-term health: investing in youth, bolstering the recruitment department, diversifying revenue streams, striking sponsorship deals. Bartomeu did some of that. He also dedicated himself to trying to turn Barcelona into a beacon of modernity; he spoke about wanting the club to be the Silicon Valley of soccer.

That is the theory; the practice is different. In practice, an electoral approach encourages instant gratification. It is why, invariably, candidates for club elections in Spain promise to bring in a specific coach or sign a certain player. All of the long-term planning might win minds, but any president knows that, to retain power, conquering hearts is much more significant.

And so Bartomeu responded to the loss of Neymar in 2017 by spending vast — and, with the benefit of hindsight, unwarranted — sums on Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé. When, in 2019, Barcelona’s squad was crying out for a new generation, he signed … Antoine Griezmann. He dispensed with Ernesto Valverde, a competent but uninspiring coach, despite not having a replacement.

Part of that, of course, is his poor judgment, a testament to a gift for appointing the wrong people at the wrong time. But part of it is an inevitable byproduct of a structure that discourages stability. When a club president knows there is always a reckoning around the corner, they must always be in electoral mode. They must always be searching for ways to sate their public. They are always thinking about bread and circuses.

The counterargument to this runs to one word: Germany. Most Bundesliga teams are majority owned by groups representing fans. That status is, with only a handful of historic (and one or two slightly less popular, more modern) exceptions, effectively enshrined in law, and it is fiercely protected.

And for the most part, it works. German clubs are stable. Few live beyond their means. The boom-and-bust economics of England and Italy, say, are unthinkable. Fans’ rights are protected, their voices heard. Games are held in sleek, modern stadiums. Television’s influence is moderated. Tickets are reasonably priced. It is, to many, a model soccer culture.

It is not, though, without its problems. The democracy that underpins the system is hardly the Pnyx: It can be, at times, superficial, not quite a Banana Republic but little more than a rubber stamp, with clubs’ power structures dominated by unmoving cliques and vulnerable to factionalism.

Economically, there are far more people working in clubs in Germany than would ever admit it in public who believe that, in order to compete in the long-term, the 50+1 rule that guarantees fan control must either be modified or lifted. (It is to the credit of the rule’s supporters that they do not see “competing” with clubs artificially supported by nation states as an admirable goal.)

Socially, it tends to ensure Germany’s clubs remain in the grip of (mostly) men who are (mostly) of a certain age and a particular, small-c conservative mind-set, and that younger, more diverse voices are often locked out of the conversation. German clubs can be unwieldy, cumbersome and resistant to change. That is not necessarily a weakness, but nor is it necessarily a strength.

Besides, there is little proof that Germany is a rule. Every club in Turkey is owned by its members. Every president is on the permanent treadmill of election and re-election. The result, in a country where prominence in soccer brings substantial political capital, is almost permanent chaos.

Many there are convinced that the only way to restore the health of the country’s soccer culture is to allow private investment: not just to pay down crippling, insurmountable debts but to encourage efficiency, to prevent power-hungry presidents from spending vast sums of borrowed money on fading stars to try to protect their own positions.

They would recognize the problem facing Barcelona, but they would recommend a more revolutionary response than forcing out Bartomeu and holding another election. That, after all, is laying the ax to the branch and not to the root. The next president may go the same way, and the one after that, on and on into the future.

Barcelona is lucky, in one sense. Democracy might yet bring the club back from the brink. The problem is that it may have taken the club there in the first place.

Agents Don’t Need to Be Paid Twice

It is easy to rail against the amount of money that drifts out of soccer and into the hands of agents, but to present them as nothing more than leeches is unfair. Good agents provide a valuable service; as we have seen during the coronavirus pandemic, not all clubs can be trusted to be caring, responsible employers.

The problem is not with the existence of agents; it is with the scale of the gray areas in which they are allowed to operate. Two details from my colleague Tariq Panja’s reporting on yet another wonderful summer for Jorge Mendes stood out.

The first is the potential conflict of interest present in the sort of deal that took Matt Doherty from Wolves to Tottenham: a player represented by Mendes leaving a club in which Mendes has considerable influence — as a business partner of the owner and the representative of the manager — for one where another of his clients is the coach.

The second is more troubling. Mendes can earn a fee from a deal not just as the agent of a player, but as the beneficiary of a mandate from a club to sell a player: a public listing from F.C. Porto shows he received millions of dollars for helping to move the striker Fabio Silva to (you guessed it) Wolves.

The good news is that this is easily solved. Agents should not be able to receive payments from a club for selling a player if they are involved in a deal in any other way. In fact, I am yet to encounter any convincing reason — other than plausible deniability — why clubs, stocked with lawyers and executives, should need an intermediary to help sell their assets at all. Or to buy them, for that matter. Mendes is good enough at his job to make money. He does not need any further help from the teams that employ his clients.

A Chance to Measure an Aura (Clutching at Straws)

Somewhere in the region of 48 hours had elapsed, at a guess, between you receiving last week’s newsletter and Liverpool’s taking the field at Villa Park on Sunday. We do not need to dwell, particularly, on what happened next, but suffice to say that over the next 90 minutes it did not look like either Virgil van Dijk or Joe Gomez had much of an aura.

Defeats happen, of course; nobody ever said van Dijk was invincible. He is as entitled to an off day, a bad performance, as anyone else. But what happened at Villa Park was no ordinary loss: The fact of defeat is immaterial, but the nature of it is not.

It will be intriguing to watch, then, what effect that humiliation at the hands of Ollie Watkins has on both van Dijk and his reputation. Will opposition teams now be less intimidated by his supposed impermeability, now that Aston Villa has proved, spectacularly, that it is not necessarily a permanent state? Will his teammates be less assured by his mere presence? Will his self-confidence be affected? Will his errors attract more attention?

What happens to van Dijk now is, in a sense, a test of whether an aura, once acquired, can be broken. It might yet be a test of whether an aura, once broken, can be reassembled.

World Cup Qualifying Starts in South America


Not unrelated to that subject, Ben Myers wonders whether “squads have figured out how to turn the tables on possession? Crystal Palace beat Manchester United despite only having 24 percent possession. Leicester broke down Manchester City having the ball 28 percent of the time. Hoffenheim had 28 percent against Bayern Munich and as many shots as Bayern.”

Ben’s theory here is “speed, speed and more speed,” and that seems right to me: Teams that can win the ball back and then play through the inevitable counter-press at speed can, indeed, turn a weakness (not having the ball) into a strength (creating chances against disorganized defenses).

Soccer’s tactical history is, essentially, one of ideas being developed and then counteracted. The (Spanish-inspired) possession game gave rise to the (German-developed) pressing, and then counter-pressing, game. It may be that this is the start of a response to that orthodoxy. (This is a vast oversimplification, I realize).

Bob Harrison, meanwhile, is on hand to point out one of the accepted banalities of soccer coverage: the sort of thing we all accept but that, when you actually think about it, doesn’t make a vast amount of sense. “When fourth officials first started holding up a board showing how much added time there would be, broadcasters broke away from actual play to show it,” he wrote. “It was new. I get that. But how long has it been going? 20 years? We really don’t need to see it.”

This is true. We don’t. They could just tell us. Though I guess people who are hard of hearing might appreciate it? Or people who, like me, tend to watch soccer games with the sound off while attempting to entertain children? Maybe a good rule would be: Show it when the ball is out of play. Don’t cut away from the game for it.

And a strong start from Ajoy Vachher, who described my assertion — expressed here — that perhaps the Premier League doesn’t always live up to its own billing as the best league in the world as “hogwash.” “To suggest the differentiator is ‘crowd noise,’ or focus on spectacle rather than the quality and intensity of soccer, is so … completely and utterly wrong, it calls into question your opinion and take on just about anything related to soccer.”

If it helps, think of it less that I see the Premier League as worse than presented and more that I believe all of the other major leagues to be better than perceived. As (I think) I’ve written before, the league that seems best — the one that is most dramatic and compelling and intimidating — is generally the one that has your team in it.

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