Amid Growing Soccer Wealth Gap, Is 92 Teams Too Many?

Rory Smith

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Bury is one of those places that is easily lost. It is — or it was, anyway — a small English town just a little north of Manchester, famous for its market and its mills. The bigger city’s relentless crawl has long since swallowed up Bury, though, claiming first its borders and increasingly its identity in a slow-motion land grab.

There is no discernible line anymore where Bury begins and Manchester finishes. It is on the city’s tram system. It does not have a separate ZIP code — it comes under Bolton’s — and, like Bolton, it is no longer a town in Lancashire, but a part of Greater Manchester. Officially, at least; that is not how the people who live there, the people who have always lived there, see it.

Soccer matters in the places like these, the places that can feel forgotten. Last summer, there were wildfires on the moorland not far from Bolton and Bury. They raged for days, but flickered only briefly in England’s broader consciousness. The point was made, more than once, that had they been burning a couple of hundred miles closer to London, they would have been treated as a national emergency. These are places that are treated like they are no longer there.

A soccer club is, increasingly, the most effective way of pushing back on that perception. It is an expression of self, of identity, a way of distinguishing your town from all of the other towns, of occupying some small space on the national stage. A place in the table, a spot in the F.A. Cup draw, a mention on the radio: it is a reminder that your town still exists, separate, and proud.

Bury has had that for 125 years. Bury F.C. has been in the Football League since 1894. It can lay claim to two F.A. Cups, in 1900 and 1903. All of that may come to an end on Friday. A financial crisis has seen Bury’s first six games of the season canceled. English Football League officials have said there will not be a seventh. Bury will be expelled from its competitions if its current owner, Steve Dale, cannot provide adequate proof of funds to secure its future by midnight Friday.

What has happened to Bury is a cautionary tale of bad ownership and weak governance and how a team’s fans can suffer the consequences. For that last group, it is to be hoped that a resolution is found, that Bury survives.

But this is a song we have all heard before. More than a quarter of the clubs in the E.F.L — the three tiers of English soccer below the Premier League — have faced liquidation petitions or bankruptcy in recent years. Many more exist perilously close to collapse, reliant on player sales or promotion to a higher tier to make the books balance. Financial strife is endemic.

There comes a point, then, when you have to ask whether the game can go on like this. Soccer among the elite is richer than ever, richer than is required, but those on the outside are being left to wither. Perhaps radical revenue redistribution might help. Perhaps — and I have some sympathy with what is a controversial view — larger clubs might partner with smaller ones, taking on costs in exchange for a chance to give young players a place to play.

So I think Phil Neville’s heart was in the right place when he suggested players should boycott social media until Twitter and the rest did something about the abhorrent racist abuse heaped (most recently) on the likes of Paul Pogba. (We know the companies can do it; they are remarkably effective at taking down anything that infringes a copyright, after all.)

But — and it is not for me to tell anyone how to fight this battle — I would be inclined to support the opposite. First, the more that players speak about this, the more they refuse to be cowed, the more they call out the issue and the offenders, the more likely Twitter and other companies are to do something about it. (How about removing anonymity? It’d be a start.) And second, the more chance they have of educating even just a handful of their abusers.

I loved this piece from Jack Williams on the number of players who are turning to family members to look after their careers. I’m not sure which of my family I’d want managing my interests, if I was tremendously rich and successful. They’re a thoroughly untrustworthy bunch.

There are 10 — no, wait, nine, Belgium didn’t want to be in there after all — countries hoping to host the 2023 Women’s World Cup. As someone with a mild vested interest in this, and as a former employee of the (now defunct) Bolivian Times, please can we have it in La Paz? Failing that, Japan, South Korea or Colombia would do very nicely, too.

Last week’s suggestion that perhaps the frame of the goal should be larger — to reflect the fact that we are, as a species, now taller than we used to be — prompted a few of you to get in touch with other suggested rule changes. I like this; it feels like I am hosting some sort of symposium of ideas.

Allan Lindh’s proposal was among the best: “Make the penalty box smaller. Fewer goalkeepers ranging out to grab the ball and stifle attacks, fewer marginal penalties at the far edges of the box. It can be implemented incrementally, on a trial basis, at no additional expense, and it may reward more skillful play.”

Brad Wilson also got in touch to defend the honor of Everton fans in Kenya. “One of my prime gripes with the Premier League, its fans and media is the all-too-common belief that the other 14 teams are just there to provide cannon fodder for the ‘Big 6,’” he wrote, mirroring one of my favorite gripes. “Why shouldn’t Everton, or Newcastle, or West Ham, or Leicester or Wolves, aspire to building an international fan base? Why should the cartel of the ‘Big 6’ be a permanent one?” It shouldn’t, Brad, and the sooner it’s over — or at least composed of different teams — the better.

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