By Max Gallagher (@maxgallwrites)
And so another World Cup is here. And I can’t remember one that was attended by less heraldry, less anticipation, less clamour for tickets, sweepstakes at work, less excitement or boozy plans for the group stages. I first got the World Cup bug in 1986, as the cameras struggled to cope with the glare of the Mexican sun reflecting off the players shiny kits. Maradona dazzled, and I was hooked for life. But it wasn’t until 1990 that I first understood the real joy of a World Cup. The buildup. The anticipation of pleasure is pleasure itself, said Jane Austen. It still strikes me as strange that she agreed to do the commentary for the BBC in 1966. But it stands out so clearly – the Qatar world cup has already partially failed because it has failed to entice.
After the Republic of Ireland qualified for their first World Cup in 1990, for months in advance it was all we could think about or talk about in primary school. The tournament itself did not fail to deliver. Maradona was booed. Gazza cried. Pavarotti sang. And the Republic of Ireland made it all the way to the quarter finals, eventually getting knocked out in a narrow 1-0 defeat by the hosts. Legends were made. This year an even more extraordinary World Cup awaits, perhaps. The unthinkable has happened. It is FIFA’s worst nightmare. And an outcome that even the Qatari government could never have predicted when their money-greased bid for the World Cup 2022 was accepted: Nobody cares.
Back home, as the footballing lights go out all over Europe, there is still a war being waged in Liverpool. The club’s owners have recently gone public with their intentions to sell up shop, or at least part of it, and it has left the fan base in a frenzy, turning on each other with the ferocity of cousins at a gypsy wedding. The last occurrence on Merseyside that attracted this level of controversy was when EMI offered Pete Best a record deal on the condition that he drop his three other band mates. Currently, the only people Liverpool fans seem to hate more than supporters of Everton and Utd, are Liverpool fans themselves. Three letters divide them: F.S.G.
Liverpool principal owner John W. Henry. Love him or hate him, you’re gonna get death threats.
Twelve years ago, Fenway Sports Group saved Liverpool FC from bankruptcy and paid off their debts. They pumped a handsome amount of money into the first team squad, even if this money was largely spent on players who would flop. The early signs seemed good. They had Luis Suarez, and the risky appointment of Brendan Rodgers seemed to pay off early. It wasn’t to be of course, and one year after almost delivering a first league title since 1990 Rodgers’ failings were exposed. Seven years of progress have followed under Jurgen Klopp, bringing among other things, four major European finals and that long-awaited league trophy. Both the stadium and commercial reach have been extended, meaning that by 2020 FSG had delivered everything that they promised. The question is: Did they achieve what they achieved by luck or by design?
Supporters of John Henry’s consortium will point to the overhaul not just of Liverpool’s corporate structures, but their scouting network and their youth team system that has delivered so spectacularly. Their acquisitions and their sales have been the most productive in the modern era. Barely a penny has been wasted at Liverpool – a frugal and canny approach that has put Liverpool back on their perch without having the spending clout of the super-rich clubs they compete with. They even managed to win a European Cup in an era where it has eluded even Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain. FSG have laid out a clear self-sustaining philosophy for Liverpool. They believe that in the future FIFA will clamp down harder on fair play, limiting the amount that wealthy owners can pour into football clubs. Some would say FSG have created the perfect blueprint of a club that can operate within these future constraints. Should their financial muscle continue to grow on the same trajectory that it has been since Fenway took over, Liverpool will eventually sit alongside Man Utd and Real Madrid in an elite group of the most lucrative clubs in the world. Everything that they need will be provided for by sheer dint of their turnover. However. The reality is, at the time of writing FIFA have absolutely no power (and perhaps appetite) to police or enforce their financial fair play rules, and Liverpool’s rivals have seemingly endless resources. It has been pointed out by many that this current Liverpool squad seems to be at a turning point – most analysts agree that they have reached their peak, and almost overnight, now seem to be in quick decline.
Last year Liverpool almost achieved the impossible. Had Aston Villa kept their knickers on for fifteen minutes they might have won a treble, and were closer to winning a quadruple than perhaps any team ever will be. The narrative seemed to be that FSG were back in control after the wobble caused by the post-pandemic slump. Liverpool’s record purchase arrived in the form of the £85m Uruguayan heavyweight Darwin Núñez at the start of the summer, and Mo Salah was granted his record-breaking contract. Then the plot all went a bit Game of Thrones. Liverpool’s on-field and off-field philosophies have suffered a crash in confidence on the scale of Kwasi Kwarteng bursting into a casino with a machine gun. Suddenly, the critics of FSG who had long been saying that their tenure at the club was over were impossible to ignore.
Darwin Nunez has been a non-instant instant hit on Merseyside.
Liverpool fans seem to be split almost 50-50. A tense schism has emerged that revolves around whether FSG are fit and proper owners for the club, and no one is pulling any punches. On social media, fans will attempt to virtually scratch each other’s eyes out when the subject is raised. The hashtag ‘FSGOUT’ has been trending so often this year that Elon Musk could charge $8 per month to use it and probably double his wealth. Chris Bascombe, writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2020 said that “there are only two clouds on the horizon for Liverpool at the moment. One is the brilliance of Manchester City, and the second is the negativity of some of their own fans.” But is it possible that some of this negativity justified? Fenway Sports Group have made mistakes, there is no doubt, and some fans have long memories.
Broadly speaking, Liverpool fans are divided into two: an older group, who loosely support FSG, perhaps because of their long memories of the dull and bleak years before their arrival. These fans are conservative and calm, and are grateful for FSG’s contribution. The other, typically younger group of fans are passionate and ambitious, and argue that in elite sport resting on your laurels is not an option. FSG’s achievements are fine, but they are more concerned about the future of the club. Liverpool simply cannot continue to compete under the auspices of FSG they argue. The club has momentum, but something must change drastically if they are to continue on the same path. Put simply, FSG spend less on players than Donald Trump spends on Mexican artwork.
The disagreement sometimes feels a bit like an argument between two soldiers from different eras: the son frustrated that his father remains loyal to a general who had clearly lost his mind.
‘But father, you don’t understand. You would send us to fight on horseback against Sheikh Mansour! You don’t know what this man is capable of. If we don’t ally with Lord Bellingham soon he will surely join forces with our foes.’
‘You young blades. You think you know it all! You don’t understand war. You were never at Istanbul. We were three nil down at halftime.’
‘We can’t rely on miracles forever. Not with the developments our enemies have made. Istanbul was a fluke.’
‘It wasn’t a fucking fluke! It was tradition and honour and… and spirit.’
‘For fuck’s sake Father! Vladimir Smicer scored in the final. Even Igor Biscan scored in the last sixteen!’
Or something like that.
FSG’s transfer policy has been miraculous, it is true. But hoping for miracles is not a safe policy when planning for the future. No one could possibly have foreseen just how brilliant Mo Salah was going to be when he was purchased from Roma, or Sadio Mané from Southampton. No one could have foreseen that these two players would lead the club to glory, remaining almost completely injury free for five years. The purchases of Roberto Firmino, Luis Diaz, and Diogo Jota all for similar fees of around £40m were equally brilliant. Was this good scouting, or good luck? The answer is, of course, a bit of both. It was phenomenal work from Liverpool to bring this group of players, and for such low prices. But a club can’t move forward expecting the scouting department to pull them out of trouble by continuing to find gems at rock bottom prices. The #FSGOUT contingent of Liverpool fans feel that the club’s woes this season are a direct result of FSG’s failure to grasp this point, and their failure to reinforce the club’s midfield in this summer’s transfer window. Rumours circulate about FSG’s problems with liquidity, but these were addressed when they recently purchased The Pittsburgh Penguins ice hockey team for $800m. They are notorious for attempting to keep each of their operations financially separate from one another, and where possible, keeping each one financially self-sufficient. However, it does now seem that perhaps even FSG agree that fiscal stimulus is required at Liverpool, and quickly.
What this actually means for the club, and for fans, is still unclear. Is the club for sale completely? Or are they seeking new investment? Which one of these routes is in the best long interests of the club? The two different groups of Liverpool fans are at odds on this topic as well. Should Liverpool sell wholesale to a megarich owner in the manner of a Newcastle, Man City or PSG? They would have limitless funding to compete on the pitch, as well as continuing to expand the stadium, the infrastructure, and even redeveloping the area surrounding Anfield. The problem of course would be that the club may end up sports-washing a murderous oil funded regime, a villainous oligarch or a dark army tech-billionaire who wants to hack into the NHS database and reprogramme your Granny’s pacemaker. Money alone does not bring success- strategy is also required. Looking around, it is not hard to find situations where rich owners have brought only chaos to a football club.
The other option for FSG is to sell a stake of the club. Between 25% and 35% of ‘Liverpool FC and Stadiums’ could be sold, leaving FSG with the all-important majority stake. Such a sale would raise an excess of a billion dollars. Since Fenway do not take money out of Liverpool in the form of dividends, we can have some confidence that all of this money will be reinvested in the first team squad and the ongoing extension of Anfield itself. Such a huge sum would surely make Liverpool competitive in the transfer market for between five and ten years, even if some of the money was spent on infrastructure. The benefit of this model is that FSG would remain in charge, continuing the tradition of frugal, sensible, farsighted management. If his press conferences are to be believed, this is the path forward preferred by Jurgen Klopp, who seems to be quite comfortable both with the stewardship of FSG and his relationship with their man on the ground, Mike Gordon. The Athletic recently suggested that any such investment would most likely come from America. This is not for cultural or ethical reasons, but simply because most investment in European football comes, contrary to common misconception, from the west rather than the east.
What happens next is anyone’s guess, but Liverpool fans have cause to be excited. The worst-case scenario is that nothing will happen. Even then, there is a decent squad in place that – injuries notwithstanding – are still capable of competing for major honours for the next year or two. But it seems more likely than not the change is coming. How the different groups of fans will reconcile themselves and heal the rifts between them depends on the nature of that change. A complete cessation of hostilities is about as likely as a Pride parade in the centre of Doha to coincide with the World Cup final. Passions run high, and social media will continue to fan the flames of any discontent. The camp will remain divided on this matter I believe. After all, human beings will always find reasons to hate figures of authority, even if they are most successful or benevolent. But we can hope for de-escalation, if FSG turn on the taps in some form or other.
Jude Bellingham is just one of many Liverpool targets who will be on show at the World Cup in Qatar. And so Liverpool fans have got at least one reason to tune in to the most boring and controversial World Cup in history. By the time the January transfer window rolls around, we may know more about the future of Liverpool. It’s even possible that fans will stagger out of the trenches on Christmas Eve for a brief truce, while we look forward to the next chapter in the history of this great club. Time will tell if the Boston Tea Party is over, or just shifting gears.