Even your average Australian, one with no ties whatsoever to English football or the round ball game in general, has heard of Manchester United.

For a generation, the name became synonymous with sporting excellence — the biggest and most popular team in the biggest and most popular sport in the world.

They were David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney — with manager Sir Alex Ferguson at the top of it all. They were a gateway to the game for many in this country and around the world, and embedded themselves in wider pop culture as a result.

But as of right now, the global image of Manchester United is no longer of goals and trophies, but of protests and heated rebellion.

David Beckham in action for Manchester United
Manchester United star David Beckham celebrates a goal against Newcastle United in 1998.(

Reuters

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More than a decade of unrest among fans — most of which has been directed at the club’s ownership — has been set alight by the failed Super League coup and manifested in Sunday’s invasion of the club’s Old Trafford ground.

To fully understand why these United fans felt it necessary to take these steps, you can take either the overly-complicated route or the over-simplified one, but both will be true.

The long story involves 16 years of fan concern over the financial state of the club and the wider economy of football, the commercialisation and globalisation of what was once purely a community organisation and the on-field stagnation of the team since Ferguson retired.

Manchester United’s current US-based owners, the Glazer family, have been unpopular since they seized control of the club in 2005 by way of a leveraged takeover — basically meaning they bought the club using predominantly loaned money, which was secured against the club’s assets.

The result was copious, eye-watering debt for the club, which at one point approached $1.4 billion. At the same time, the Glazers were profiting from the club while spending on player transfers was somewhat restricted.

As the debt grew, so too did the ill-feeling in the stands. Green and gold scarves became the recognised symbol for anti-Glazer sentiment among fans, and they became increasingly ever-present in the Old Trafford crowd at United games.

This current flashpoint has come in the wake of the Super League disaster, in which United was one of six English clubs to back a breakaway European competition that would upend the traditional structure of football throughout the continent, while crucially safeguarding the financial position of the elite few.

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Manchester United fans storm into Old Trafford

It took only a few days of outrage around Europe to bring the proposed league to a rapid and dramatic halt, but the aftershocks are still being felt, most notably at United where the Glazers’ active involvement in the Super League’s formation has proved the final straw.

But that’s the long version. The simple heart of the issue for these United fans is a feeling of disconnection from the club they consider their own.

That sense of abandonment is shared among most football fans in England, has been exacerbated by the pandemic and its cavernous empty stadiums, and reached the point of no return with the conception and demolition of the Super League.

Manchester United are not the only club in England to have risked disenfranchisement from local fans in pursuit of world domination but — perhaps largely due to the benefits of global expansion not manifesting into trophies and success — their fans have rebelled hardest against it. 

Former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger called this moment “a revolution in football”, while the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust said now is the time for fans “to reclaim the people’s game”.

It may well prove a futile effort. Billionaires don’t generally become wealthy by curtailing to public pressure, no matter how fierce or persistent.

But what these protests at Manchester United prove is that sport, at its heart, must always be about the connection of people. To places, to moments, to communities.

That connection can be expanded, and can take on many forms anywhere around the world, but not at the cost of its history and its roots. Because without those, the rest means nothing.

In that sense, one way or another, something has to give.



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