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For months, if not longer, Granit Xhaka will have heard the grumbles whenever he misplaces a pass. He cannot have failed to hear the groans when he shoots from range. He will have noticed the howls of rage when he concedes a free kick, or a penalty, or loses possession in the middle of the field.
He has heard all of that, and then he has gone home, and he has flicked open his social media accounts and been confronted with all of that wordless, inchoate abuse given form: strangers, anonymous and legion, wishing all manner of ills on him and his family because he has misplaced a pass or shot from range or lost possession.
And for months, he has done what all soccer players — what all athletes — do and tuned it out. He has pretended he has not heard it. He has learned to tolerate it; or if not to tolerate it, to tell himself he can tolerate it. It is, for a lot of professional players, a point of pride. Not reacting, not rising to the bait, is the professional part of the job description.
A couple of weeks ago, as Arsenal was held to a draw at home by Crystal Palace, Xhaka slipped. Around an hour into the game, his manager, Unai Emery, decided to substitute him. As Xhaka — Arsenal’s captain, as it happens, though that is, in truth, irrelevant — trudged from the field, his own fans jeered him: raucously, clearly, almost gleefully.
Xhaka, despite himself, reacted. He cupped his ears, raised his arms, and mouthed a couple of expletives.
Emery and Arsenal asked him to apologize. He did so, though he did a good job of getting his rebuttal in first in a statement he released a few days later. Emery then revealed that Xhaka had been stripped of the captaincy, a deeply serious measure in England, which remains childishly obsessed with captains, and that he would be excluded from Arsenal’s squad in its next match. Presumably, Xhaka was being given a chance to think about what he had done.
Now, it seems as if Xhaka’s career in north London is at an end. There is speculation that he will leave when the transfer window opens in January. Don’t be fooled by the fact that Xhaka is a millionaire many times over, or that he will doubtless find a new club willing to pay him to play soccer for a living. The moral of this story is that a man is being forced out of his job because he cannot, at all times, remain stony-faced and impassive as strangers who are supposed to be on his side scream at him.
If there is a taboo in soccer, it is that you must not criticize — or even worse, cross — the fans. The fans are the ones who buy the tickets and the television subscriptions and the jerseys, and they are the ones who pay your wages. The fans are the ones who sing the songs and fill the stadiums and turn a game into a spectacle. The fans are the ones upon whom the whole edifice is built.
And that is all true. Football without fans is nothing, as the old slogan goes. But it is a leap to go from there to the idea that fans can, therefore, do whatever they like, that they are beyond reproach.
It is an even larger jump to assume that there is some unwritten contract between players and fans decreeing that the former have to take whatever the latter throws at them. There is, or at least there should be, a degree of reciprocity here.
Nobody, really, comes out of this with any credit. Xhaka should not have reacted as he did. Emery, certainly, has demonstrated not strength but deep-seated weakness in censuring his player.
But the fans, too, might ask what their behavior has accomplished. Not only the ones who have attacked Xhaka personally on social media, but also the ones who have been so quick to anger and so willing to alienate a player for not quite living up to their expectation. Xhaka may now be quite relieved to leave Arsenal. They have their wish. But in that climate, will others be quite so keen to replace him?
Too Petty to Be Great
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how important balance is to a truly compelling rivalry: the sense that each side of it secretly regards the other as a peer, rather than an inferior. A couple of days before Liverpool will face Manchester City for the first time this season, the thought has recurred.
All of soccer’s era-defining rivalries descend into pettiness: think Arsenal and Manchester United and the flying food fight at Old Trafford, or the schism between Barcelona and Real Madrid players that threatened, at one point, to derail Spain’s international dominance, or, further back, Brian Clough and Don Revie exchanging barbs on television. At their heart, though, there is at least some semblance of respect, an awareness of a rival’s prowess.
The problem that City and Liverpool have is that their rivalry — off the field — is all pettiness, closer to the pantomime squabbling of professional wrestling than the sporting test of strength of the golden age of boxing, say. The pettiness is wearing because it is not underpinned by respect (which is odd, because on the field, the opposite is true).
This is, I think, due as much to a failure of understanding as to the vitriolic social media climate in which the rivalry has gestated. It is not that each club understands the other’s point of view and just happens to disagree; it is that they are having entirely different conversations.
To Manchester City, greatness is in the here and now; history is irrelevant. To Liverpool, there is no greatness without history. (You will note that these priorities have been chosen in order to make sure each side can guarantee victory.) The excellence of both teams makes for a compelling title race. It will make Sunday’s game must-watch. The atmosphere around it, though, does not add to the sense of occasion. Instead, it serves to diminish it.
A New World Order
It is not just the Premier League that has a marquee fixture this weekend: It is Der Klassiker weekend in Germany, too, with Bayern Munich hosting Borussia Dortmund. Oddly, neither is on top of the Bundesliga — this newsletter is a staunch supporter of Marco Rose’s Borussia Mönchengladbach, and is greatly enjoying his success — but it is Bayern that is feeling the strain more keenly.
It has felt for a while as if there is a reckoning due at Bayern. The squad has looked older, and more and more stale, with every passing season. The club has never really been able to hit upon a credible playing identity since Pep Guardiola left in 2016; and though the German financial model is admirable (if overplayed), there is a sense that perhaps even Bayern, with all those lucrative commercial deals with blue-chip Bavarian firms, can no longer compete for the very best players with the Premier League’s arrivistes.
Bayern, you sense, has to get this transition right. It has to find the right manager to replace Nico Kovac. It has to sign the right players to rejuvenate its squad. It will recover domestically, of course — it would be no surprise if it ended the year with an eighth straight Bundesliga title — but its place at the summit in Europe is more vulnerable. It will be fascinating to see if it can meet the challenge.
Italy Has a Problem
Another week, another player racially abused in Italian soccer. It is all starting to feel so familiar it is predictable. You are a more optimistic, or less attentive, person than me if you thought Mario Balotelli would get to play against Verona, in Verona, and not be abused for the color of his skin.
The reaction has followed the same pattern as ever: everyone involved with Verona denied it, despite the whole thing being on video; the club was issued with a partial stadium closure by the Italian authorities; and Verona then banned the leader of its ultras until 2030 because he had said Balotelli, as a black man, could “never really be Italian.”
I grew up on the romance of Italian soccer. I loved, and still do — the teams, the glamour, the sunshine. I am convinced that European soccer needs a strong Italy, and a strong Serie A. But if it does not get a grip on this issue soon, then Italian soccer will wither and die. The way things are going, some parts of it will not be missed.
In Case You Missed It
The inestimable Tariq Panja got our buildup to the biggest game of the season, until they meet again in a few months, rolling with this interview with Peter Moore, Liverpool’s chief executive. Moore’s insight is interesting, largely because so much of Liverpool’s rise can and should be attributed to an intelligent off-field approach.
Leicester City is one of two teams that have a vague interest in the outcome of Sunday’s game in terms of catching whichever of Liverpool and City loses: It sits third in the Premier League standings. Leicester has somehow managed to reinvent itself after being presented with the greatest challenge of all: actual, remarkable success.
For reasons that go sadly unexplained, Fred Fifield is an Ipswich Town fan. He writes: “We spent 17 consecutive seasons in the Championship until we were relegated last season to League One. I was wondering what the longest consecutive stay is for a team in one of the three non-Premier Leagues. Also, would that be considered remarkable consistency, remarkable mediocrity, or a little of both?”
Both, to me, Fred. To answer your question: Fittingly, on Tuesday night, I found myself at Rochdale against Ipswich. Fitting, because Rochdale is the answer (as far as I know). It was in the fourth tier of English soccer between 1975 and 2010. In fact, Rochdale’s consistency is staggering: Since 1920, it has spent all but 13 years in the fourth division (or equivalent).
Timothy Ogden, meanwhile, says he has found the “last eight years of USWNT soccer to be nothing but disappointing,” though he acknowledges that the team won two World Cups in that period. He should try being a Rochdale fan.
“A slow slog of overwhelming talent without much of an idea of what they were trying to do on the field. I’m excited by the new era because both there seems to be a coach with ideas and there is a generational change. Perhaps we will get to see a USWNT trying to be something again.”
Anyone share Tim’s optimism?
That’s all for this week. Thanks for all the correspondence, as ever. My Twitter is here, and you’re welcome to get in touch at email@example.com. You should also immediately tell everyone you know about this newsletter here. Enjoy Liverpool-City. But watch Bayern-Dortmund, too.
Have a great weekend,