[UPDATE: Manchester United crushed A.C. Milan 4-0 to advance to the quarter finals of the European Premier League. David Beckham entered as a substitute but did little to change the course of the game. ]
Manchester United fans have had more than just the prospect of securing a European Champions League quarterfinal place on their minds ahead of their clash with AC Milan Wednesday – a tie infused with the return "home" of one time Manchester golden boy David Beckham wearing the Italian champions’ colors.
Rather than their traditional red and white however, thousands of the Manchester faithful were planning to attend wearing the green and gold that has become a symbol of an escalating rebellion against the club’s deeply unpopular American owner Malcolm Glazer. Mr. Glazer, who also owns the NFL's Tampa Buccaneers, stands accused of risking United’s ruin by saddling the richest soccer club in the world with nearly $1 billion of debt when he bought the club in a highly leveraged takeover in 2005.
Talk of large numbers even boycotting the opening 10 minutes were dismissed Wednesday by Manchester United manger Alex Ferguson. "The fans won't do that,” he told reporters. ”It is too important a game. Old Trafford will be rocking and I am sure whether they are wearing the traditional red and white or the protest green and gold scarves, the supporters will be united and speaking with one voice to get us safely through.''
But even if some fans skip the opening minutes, they're unlikely to miss any action from Mr. Beckham, who is expected to start the game on the bench in his first appearance at Old Trafford football stadium in seven years.
Nevertheless, for fans across the country - including many who instinctively bristle at the perceived arrogance of the United faithful but whose own clubs face extinction due to the huge levels of debt wracked up through overspending - the rebellion at what is arguably the world’s most famous club is a sign of hope that a fight-back is possible against powerful commercial interests.
Glazer has alienated fans of the Red Devils with the sale of star players such as the Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo and soaring ticket prices. Two thirds of fans are reportedly considering not renewing their season tickets, which have gone up from their pre-takeover price of £487 ($663) to £722 ($982) this year.
The supporters are revolting?
Few are surprised then that so many are turning to the rebellion, centered around the Manchester United Supporters Trust, whose membership now stands at more than 120,000
“Manchester United is based in Salford, which is probably one of the most working class areas in the country,” says Mark Hayes of Southampton Solent University, who has researched soccer fan identity and its interface between commerce and culture. “The question has to be asked: how many working class fans can now go to games? They are disenfranchised; alienated and extremely angry at the way the club is being run.”
Anger also runs deep at the way Mr. Glazer has loaded the club’s books with more £700m ($952m) of debt, making United’s financial position a potentially precarious one.
Although most observers believe the club is too big to fail, that’s certainly not the case at an increasing numbers of other burdened clubs now counting the cost of having lived beyond their means, such as Portsmouth and Crystal Palace.
In the latest reminder of the financial malaise threatening "the beautiful game" in the country of its origin, three lower league clubs were also in court Wednesday over unpaid tax revenues. Cardiff, Southend United and Chester face the prospect of liquidation.
“I think the situation is probably worse now than at any time I have known,” said Gerard Krasner, a former Chairman of Leeds United, who oversaw an emergency administration to ensure the survival of debt-stricken Bournemouth AFC in 2008.
“The ones with the massive income are in the Premiership, lower down the income is not so great. They have a very small percentage of television revenue. Some of them have tried to buy success and failed and I think over the next few years we are going see some disappear.”
The ripple affects of such outcomes cannot be underestimated, adds Dr. Hayes.
A fan of Southampton FC, he points to 2009 research showing that domestic abuse cases increased in the city as the club experienced a downturn on the pitch and struggled with crippling debts.
A way of life
“There is absolutely no doubt that people invest their lives in football clubs,” he says. “There is a fan base which is absolutely wedded to their clubs as a manifestation of their community, especially at a time when people are leading more individual and isolated lives. The impact of losing that link is difficult to quantify but will be absolutely profound.”
Even aside from smaller clubs, the delicate balancing of books in England’s elite Premier League has also concerned UEFA, European soccer’s governing body.
It published a report last month showing that 18 of the English’ Premier League’s 20 clubs owe a total of £3.4billion, more than the combined debt of the rest of Europe’s top divisions.
As a solution, UEFA advocates greater ownership of clubs by supporters – a model that happens to be part of a new vision for Manchester United being put forward by a consortium of British financiers attempting to stage a £1.25 billion takeover of the club.
Dubbed "The Red Knights," their ranks include high profile Manchester United fans such as Jim O’Neill, the consortium’s mastermind and the chief economist of the British arm of investment bank Goldman Sachs.
The takeover would be funded by a partnership of ultra wealthy fans as well as ordinary fans, an outcome attractive to many English rank and file supporters tired of watching as famous clubs from Manchester United to Chelsea turning into playthings or cash cows of foreign tycoons.
At the time of Glazer's takeover, Manchester United was publicly traded, allowing fans to own a piece of the action. Glazer took the club private in his takeover, so the only way he will lose control of the club is if he decides to sell -- or is forced to by mounting debt, something unlikely to be a problem for the deep-pocketed businessman any time soon.
While fan ownership of top clubs isn't uncommon in mainland European countries – Barcelona is the most high profile example – the model is rare in Britain.
Such clubs do exist however, and include FC United of Manchester, a lower league club team formed in 2005 by supporters following the Glazer takeover, which led to hundreds of supporters defecting. Still, FC United averages just over 2,000 fans per home game. FC United's estranged bigger brother averages 75,000.