20 historical empires that explain the English Premier League

 


Manchester City's Belgian midfielder Vincent Kompany (left) and Manchester City's manager Manuel Pellegrini hold the premiership trophy after winning 2-0 in the English Premier League football match against West Ham United at Manchester's Etihad Stadium in May. (Andrew Yates/AFP/Getty Images)

The English Premier League season starts Saturday. It is one of the world's most popular sporting competitions, with hundreds of millions of fans glued to their screens every weekend in virtually all time zones of the planet. Given the immensity of the audience, WorldViews decided to situate each team in world-historic context.

Here is a list of the English Premier League's 20 clubs, each paired with the empire, political faction or other entity that best defines it. (The listing is in order of where each team finished last season. The bottom three are this year's new arrivals, promoted from the division below, where last year's three lowest finishers were relegated.)

Manchester City: France under Napoleon

Napoleon didn’t have a near-unlimited pipeline of U.A.E. oil wealth to pump into his campaigns, but he sure had hubris. And Manchester City has that in spades: The reigning English champions boast possibly the most expensive line-up in world soccer.

Early 18th century France's diminutive power forward. (Wikimedia Commons)
Early 18th-century France's diminutive power forward. (Wikimedia Commons)

Its squad of elite foreign transplants has its eye on continental domination, and it has yet to run afoul of a Russian winter. Along the way, Manchester City has shown it’s not averse to engaging in elaborate transactions with the United States. And its diminutive, talismanic striker is hoping for more glory.

Liverpool: The Spanish Empire

For decades, Liverpool was England’s preeminent force, its vaults bursting with accumulated silverware. But not unlike the zenith of Spanish imperial might, that era feels quite distant, and a lot of other history has piled up since. The great Spanish Armada foundered near British shores (see Manchester United, below), and Spain's dependence on prized South American assets ultimately led to trauma and heartbreak.

Chelsea: The Russian Empire under Czar Nicholas I

Run as a vanity project of a Russian oligarch, Chelsea emerged out of middling obscurity in the last decade and blew up the fragile concert of power that once existed in the Premier League. The team's boundless, petrodollar-funded ambition, its ruthless acquisition of top players and its overt hostility to its neighbors won it few friends. Nicholas I, animated by the nationalism of his age and delusions about conquering Istanbul and even Jerusalem, took his country into the Crimean War — a grim, grinding conflict. Chelsea's style of play has earned similar comparisons.

Desperate for success in the Champions League. (Wikimedia Commons)
Always desperate for success in the Champions League. (Wikimedia Commons)

Arsenal: The Ottoman Empire

In recent years, some have regarded Arsenal's long-serving manager, Arsene Wenger, as the Sick Man of English football. Arsenal's finances were more meager than those of its main competitors, who stole away some of its coveted North African and European possessions. There was a time, though, when Arsenal represented a dynamic, dangerous force that put the continent on notice. Its squad of well-drilled janissaries — gathered from all over the world and schooled in the Arsenal way of elegant, quick-passing soccer — were even once deemed "invincible." A great amassing of midfield generals, led by a mighty Turk, may mean that the days of glory aren't quite over yet.

Everton: The Portuguese Empire

In some respects, they were first on the scene, but live in the shadow of their larger, more powerful neighbor and city rival, Liverpool. But they have adroitly charted a course toward steady growth and success. Everton remains something of a force in the English game that can disrupt the ambitions of the bigger powers around it.

Tottenham Hotspur: The Austro-Hungarian Empire

What to say about Tottenham? It's a team steeped in a mythic sense of preeminence that has little bearing on its present reality: an also-ran side, perennial disappointments, handmaidens to the real players on the continent.

Manchester United: The British Empire

For a time, it seemed the sun would never set on Manchester United. Since the early 1990s, the advent of the Premier League-era, no other English club has been so imperious. The East India Company and its aggressive, mercantilist empire prefigured modern capitalism; Manchester United’s rise established the rules of the global game as we know it, making clear the importance of lucrative television deals and corporate sponsorships. It has made a fortune selling its product to prone Asian markets.

But last year, we saw signs of the empire’s sunset. A woeful season led to a seventh-place finish. There are new kids on the block who have caught up with United, and the winds of change may now not be blowing so favorably in its direction.

Southampton: The Incas

Not many people realize that the great Incan Empire was actually rather short-lived, spanning less than a century or so before the arrival of the Spanish. Southampton has been back in the English Premier League for just two seasons, and its startling success has won it admiring notice. But this summer, Liverpool's conquistadors plundered much of the team's wealth, and Southampton looks to be a spent, depleted force.

Stoke: The Assyrian Empire

Slowly emerging from days of prehistoric, "caveman" soccer, Stoke is finally showing signs of sophistication under its new high priest, Mark Hughes. But one imagines the club's warlike spirit is very much intact.

Stoke has added more flair and technique to its game. (Wikimedia Commons)
Stoke has added more flair and technique to its game. (Wikimedia Commons)

Newcastle: Holy Roman Empire

The thing about the Holy Roman Empire, as Voltaire once said, is that it was not really holy, nor Roman, nor much of an empire. Newcastle is less than the sum of its parts: a passionate fan base, an amazing stadium, a club with aspirations of becoming a continental powerhouse. Its squad routinely gets picked apart and then reassembled, not unlike the shifting dynastic alliances and territorial exchanges that made up much of this empire's history.

Crystal Palace: Sparta

Palace's mascot is an eagle, and there is an undeniable spirit to this small London club. Its vociferous fans made Selhurst Park, the home stadium, into a fortress last season. They'll be up for the fight this year, as well.

Swansea: The Moorish kingdoms of Spain

Swansea, the league's only Welsh club, burst onto the scene a few years ago with a cosmopolitan brilliance, playing a brand of dynamic, exciting soccer that few had anticipated. Muslim Spain was for a time a crucible of learning, architecture and tolerance in Western Europe. But infighting and the eventual Reconquista saw Spain's Muslim rulers driven out of the Iberian Peninsula. Swansea has to hope it doesn't suffer a similar fate.

West Ham: Anglo-Saxon England, pre-Norman invasion

There is a wonderful folklore around West Ham. It was the incubator of the only English national team to win a World Cup (that was in 1966). The West Ham way — a stylish, energetic style of soccer —supposedly exemplifies the best of the English game. But West Ham is now something of a subdued entity in the Premier League, where foreign, continental traditions hold sway. The Anglo-Saxons, who had ruled England into the 11th century, found themselves second-class citizens after the invasion of William the Conqueror and his Norman knights in 1066.

The Battle of Hastings as show in the Bayeaux Tapestry (or the demise of West Ham.)
The Battle of Hastings as shown in the Bayeaux Tapestry -- or the demise of West Ham. (Wikimedia Commons)

Sunderland: The Swedish Empire

We could tell you of a time when Sweden once had many foreign colonies, including in America. We could tell you about the great military accomplishments of its most famous monarch, Gustavus Adolphus. Or we could remind you that, like Sunderland, the Swedish Empire was just another faction battling it out in the north that few remember that well.

Aston Villa: Poland

One of the great historic powers, with a rich pedigree, Aston Villa is now more accustomed to being overrun and bullied by its neighbors.

Hull City: The Olmecs

Steve Bruce, the manager of Hull City, is known for his especially large head. The ancient Olmec civilization flourished some 3,000 years ago in what's now Mexico. They've left behind numerous sculptures of giant heads that have fascinated archaeologists and tourists alike. One theory suggests they could be the visages of particularly famous Mesoamerican ball players.

Steve Bruce's head, in perspective. (Wikimedia Commons)
Steve Bruce's head, in perspective. (Wikimedia Commons)

West Bromwich Albion: Illyria

Ask some people in the Balkans, and they'll tell you proudly of the ancient kingdom that once straddled a corner of territory along the Adriatic's rugged coastline. Ask anyone else, and they probably won't think much of one of the many provinces eventually swallowed up by the Romans. Many are tipping West Brom to disappear from the English Premier League after this season.

Leicester City: Khmer Empire

In the grand scheme of things, the Khmer Empire was not one of Asia's great powers, especially when compared to the kingdoms that existed in nearby China and India. But its rulers built the majestic complex of temples and palaces at Angkor. Yes, Leicester City's billionaire owner is Thai, not Cambodian, but his newly promoted side has the tools and resources to set up a beautiful new project.

Burnley: The Jacobite Rebellion

The Jacobite uprisings rocked parts of Britain in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The rebels fought for the Stuart dynasty and King James II, who had been ousted from the throne. Burnley looks to be a feisty outfit, and it plays at a stadium called Turf Moor. Some of the greatest concentrations of Jacobites were in Scotland, where, as you know, there are quite a few moors. Not unlike the Jacobites, it's probable that Burnley will be frequently defeated and put down by season's end.

Queens Park Rangers: The Barbary pirates

The London-based team is built on castoffs and renegades. Its manager is known far and wide as a canny operator, never shying from a  transaction. It's unclear, though, whether these North African corsairs — sorry, this newly-promoted club — will manage to prey on the unsuspecting or, instead, succumb to heavy bombardment at home.

Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
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