Even if you don’t know anything about soccer, you still probably have heard of Manchester United. The most successful English team of the past quarter-century is a global megabrand, with millions of red jersey-clad fans around the world. The club embarks on lucrative tours of East Asia, the United States or Africa every summer and garners hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually — Manchester United is listed on the New York Stock Exchange, counts an Indian tire company, leading Thai beer and African telecoms firm among an impressive array of international sponsors, and even boasts its own entertainment “experience” amid the space-age casinos of Macau.
So Manchester United’s appointment last year of team manager David Moyes — who was fired today after just eight months in charge — always looked somewhat incongruous. United’s season under Moyes, a dour-faced Glaswegian with no track record of major success at top soccer sides, has been a disaster, marked by 15 defeats — a staggering number for a team of United’s pedigree. The last loss was a limp performance over the weekend at Everton, Moyes’s former club.
It was always going to be a tough act to follow, but few imagined that the club’s decline could be so precipitous. Moyes followed Sir Alex Ferguson, a towering figure who stepped down last year after 26 years in charge and a haul of titles and trophies that will likely never be matched. Under Ferguson’s stewardship, Manchester United became the global leviathan it now is, distinguished by its ability to consistently produce generations of championship-winning teams. In his last year, Manchester United won a record 20th English league title.
Ferguson, a Scotsman and Glaswegian to boot, handpicked Moyes as his successor, imagining that the fiery, hard-working Moyes would be a natural heir: a man in Ferguson's image who had the chops to occupy Ferguson's post for many years to come. But that decision now appears misguided, if not vain. Moyes, who made his name at Everton as a coach who could coax more out of less, proved clearly out of his depth at one of the wealthiest, most powerful clubs in the world.
Fans of rival teams — including this reporter — indulged in seemingly endless schadenfreude as United slumped to embarrassing defeat after defeat. For the first time in almost two decades, United has not qualified for next season’s lucrative European Champions league. Even worse for United fans, Liverpool, the old enemy that was banished to the shadows during Ferguson’s reign, is on the verge of winning the English league after a barren streak stretching to 1990.
Part of what has made the spectacle of United's implosion so fascinating has been its echoes around the world, not least the frenzy of condemnation on social media, typed out in myriad languages, that followed every weekend of humiliation. While many United fans chanted in Moyes's defense inside the team's Old Trafford stadium, legions of supporters elsewhere — including many tens of thousands of miles away — called for his head.
Jim O'Neill, the former Goldman Sachs economist who came up with the "BRIC" geo-political grouping (and a Manchester United season ticket-holder), told the Manchester Evening News that the team's absence from next year's Champions League was likely what compelled the Glazer family, the team's American owners, to axe Moyes. Beamed to all corners of the planet, the tournament features Europe's most glamorous clubs and stars and its TV contracts are a cash cow for Europe's elite teams. It's money, says O'Neill, that is vital to "the business model of the current ownership."
Some, including Ferguson, had argued for patience with Moyes — the same shown to Ferguson early in his managerial career. But the world has changed. Rival English teams like Manchester City, fueled by Abu Dhabi's petrodollars, and London's Chelsea — owned by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich — have used their newfound wealth to eat into Manchester United's global footprint. Manchester City recently announced a tie-up with the New York Yankees to sponsor a new MLS team in New York City. It was a move rich in irony: Over a decade ago, the Yankees and United, both then the swaggering titans of their respective sports, had collaborated in a joint marketing venture now long forgotten.
Moyes won the United job largely because of parochial sentiment. But in a game now wholly dictated by forces of globalization, he was bound to lose.