Discover more from Grace on Football
Barcelona, and football, vote for nostalgia
Plus: some of my thoughts on Substack
The beloved sitcom 30 Rock is nominally about the behind the scenes world of a fictional sketch show, but it quickly became interested in NBC, the real American TV channel that airs both the made up show and 30 Rock itself. While NBC had huge success in the 1990s with series such as Friends, Seinfeld and ER, by the time 30 Rock began in 2006 it had fallen on hard times. It had a mix of critically acclaimed comedies that couldn’t find an audience as well as reality shows no one really cared for much but helped pay the bills.
NBC tried to solve these problems with nostalgia. If they could simply remind people of how their comedies used to be, and how much audiences used to love watching them, then that nostalgia would wish away all their problems. 30 Rock loved to satirise this. Famously, it showed a proposal of NBC’s programming priorities, which consisted of The Biggest Loser (a profitable reality show no one liked) and, crucially, “make it 1997 again through science or magic”.
European football is increasingly interested in that model.
Last week, FC Barcelona members elected Joan Laporta as their club president for the second time. No one was surprised.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Cruyffian idealist, a true Més que un club Catalan nationalist, or simply a results-focused football fan: the last few years have been a very poor decline for Barcelona. It’s likely to get worse as Lionel Messi either leaves or ages out of world beater status. Something had to change, and so it was that the continuity candidate, Toni Freixa, lost by a landslide.
It was always a race between the two “change” candidates, Laporta and Víctor Font, but what’s notable is that neither really offered much in the way of new ideas. Of the two, Font certainly had the more innovative ideas, but his “sporting project” was to be almost entirely built around Xavi Hernández. Xavi is a smart guy in a lot of ways (and a clumsy guy in others), but his primary qualification here is that he was an outstanding midfielder schooled in the ways of juego de posición his entire career. The last great Barca side, the greatest team ever to play football, was managed by the previous generation’s great organising midfielder, La Masia graduate Pep Guardiola, restoring the side to Cruyffian principles. So why wouldn’t it work again? Yes, the thing that was good before, let’s do it again.
Font didn’t win, of course. Laporta promised even more nostalgia. He’s not just emulating past successes, he’s literally the guy who oversaw that great Guardiola side in his first stint as president. He promises a time when everyone was fine, and we can all feel good about those comforting reminders of the past.
As friend of the newsletter and all around Barcelona expert Kevin Williams has suggested, Laporta is the Joe Biden of Barcelona. Up against a disastrous, corrupt, morally bankrupt incumbent regime, he offers a safe pair of hands as someone who’s done it before and knows what the job entails. Biden also brought back warm memories of the Barack Obama era, a time when hope and change was something people still believed in, when the world really did seem to be getting better rather than worse. Just run it back and it’ll all be fine? Ok, ok, maybe you like Biden or maybe you don’t, not here to get into the policy details.
You look around the sport and this is entirely the norm. Juventus, in their first real moment of panic for years, went for the safe and familiar and appointed complete novice Andrea Pirlo as manager. Because, you know, he did those cool passes and stuff a few years earlier. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is trying and fitfully succeeding at turning the clock back for Manchester United. Frank Lampard tried and failed to bring the good times back at Stamford Bridge. Liverpool have had a rocky patch, and if Jurgen Klopp were to leave, the name on everyone’s lips is Steven Gerrard.
Why is football so desperate to cling to the past?
The obvious reason is just about marketing. Per the most recent Deloitte Money League figures, the ten richest clubs in Europe make about half of their revenue from “commercial” activities rather than traditional streams, such as match tickets or TV rights. Most estimates I can remember seeing have suggested the commercial revenue will only increase as a share of overall money coming in. The ability to make money has become slightly decoupled from winning football matches. It’s still very important, but as more of an indirect means of growing the “brand”. Nostalgia, however, is a much easier and more straightforward way of boosting a brand than the famously unpredictable challenge of kicking the ball into the goal.
And crafting that brand usually means you need a story to tell. We’re narrative creatures. Existing narratives are much safer than creating something new. You can see it in terms of blockbuster films these days: it’s all existing intellectual property. It’s much easier to tell a story you’ve heard before, with a few of the right tweaks, than a brand new one. For Barcelona, that means a tradition of producing academy players taught the ideas of Cruyff, with the club passed down through generations of that same talent pipeline in the coaching staff, all as a symbol of Catalan nationalism. It’s a good story, which is part of why it’s been so popular. But it is, nonetheless, running on nostalgia.
The alternative is simply the cold logic of money. That’s what Barca have been running on in recent years. They’ve done an atrocious job of it, but the aim is for a money driven, results driven process above anything else. To hell with romantic notions of what the club should be. With nothing to sell to the fans except results, it’s no surprise that model has collapsed amid Champions League collapses. But the only other story anyone seemed capable of telling was one of nostalgia. While Williams compares Barcelona to last year’s US presidential election, to me it feels more like the Brexit vote. The Remain campaign lacked any kind of story to tell about Britain’s place in Europe other than finances. The Leave campaign countered this with the only other story anyone could imagine: a mostly fictional narrative about the past.
This probably won’t pan out in the long run. A football club’s structural problems can’t be wished away. Barcelona’s debt, Juventus’ ageing core, Manchester United’s lack of cohesion post-Ferguson: none of these problems are solved with nostalgia. It’s a quick fix that avoids dealing with the bigger problems. It’s appealing, yes, on a marketing level. It makes people feel good and makes the problems go away for a moment. It sells shirts. It keeps things ticking over, for now.
But in the long run, if football wants to keep generating that marketing value, it’s going to need to find some new stories to tell.
Hey, if you’re just here for the football, no worries at all, you can stop reading now and please come back next time. For the rest of you, I want to talk a little about the recent Substack controversies. If you haven’t been following this discussion, I’d recommend reading this article first.
The first time Substack really hit my radar was back in late 2018, when my friend (and fellow FiveThirtyEight Soccer Chat contributor) Ryan O’Hanlon started his newsletter after leaving The Ringer. By then, former editors of The Toast, Daniel Lavery and Nicole Cliffe, were fairly well established on here. I had enjoyed The Toast a great deal, but kind of lost track of the pair after that site closed, such is life. Anyway, the concept of a newsletter interested me, and this seemed like the place to be. So in early 2019, I started a pop culture newsletter as a hobby while I focused my main writing energies on freelance football writing (primarily for StatsBomb and Liverpool.com).
It became much more serious once the pandemic happened. Both the sporting and media worlds were in chaos, so almost overnight my freelance work dried up. I decided then that I’d launch a football Substack, the very one you’re reading, first as a free newsletter then hopefully with a paid tier. It’s all gone pretty well, and plenty of you seem to like what I’m doing enough to pay. On a purely selfish level, this platform has been a great tool for me.
But in a broader sense, Substack is growing a little concerning. The most sustainable and worthwhile version of the site probably involves growing and uplifting new voices, building audiences for the first time on this platform, sort of like the way most big YouTubers were nobodies before YouTube. But the quickest way to the kind of rapid growth tech startups and venture capitalists want is through bringing in established big names. That’s meant enticing people who aren’t otherwise comfortable in existing media jobs, and Substack seems to have zeroed in on those who have been “cancelled” or at least concerned enough about “cancel culture”, who want a space where they can stir the pot as much as they like without interference. Particularly when it comes to trans issues.
I’m no stranger to media transphobia. I’m trans and British, after all. I’ve watched TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist, though honestly, I don’t really see anything “radical” about them) talking points and outright lies become totally accepted in not just the right wing press but the liberal papers as well. I’ve seen otherwise serious journalists become consumed with taking away my rights based on complete nonsense, and seen those journalists taken completely seriously by almost everyone. I lie awake at night terrified of these people. Point is, I know the stench of media transphobia. And Substack, I’m sorry to say, reeks of it.
In some ways, this feels like an inevitable outgrowth of social media platforms. Name me a major one that hasn’t had some kind abuse problems, after all. But what feels more concerning is Substack’s disinterest in recognising this as a real problem. The service pays a select handful of big name journalists an advance to come and write here, and they refuse to tell us the names involved. They claim none of these chosen few “can be reasonably construed as anti-trans”. Quite how Substack founders Hamish McKenzie, Chris Best and Jairaj Sethi are qualified to decide this is beyond me. Is Andrew Sullivan a “Substack Pro” writer, for example? Because he would almostcertainly qualify as anti-trans by most definitions.
McKenzie, Best and Sethi seem to believe in a utopian idea of Substack being self-regulating. They want the great power without the great responsibility. They have allowed Graham Linehan, a writer banned on most other social networks for inciting anti-trans hate, to flourish on here. Since Substack does not exist in a vacuum, smaller transphobic accounts on Twitter very frequently cite his articles on here, allowing him a backdoor to influence the conversation on a social network he had been banned from. Similar things can be described of Glenn Greenwald, one of Substack Pro’s biggest users, and the way his recent work has, inadvertently or otherwise, inflicted waves of targeted misogynistic harassment on cis woman journalist Taylor Lorenz. They have in the past said they believe Substack’s avoidance of ads will prevent the kind of algorithmic radicalisation we’ve seen elsewhere, but this is just one node in a larger internet. Applying no rules while everyone else enforces moderation just ensures Substack will be used by the worst people doing the worst things.
I decided a while ago that I would not write for any publication that looked to actively harm the trans community. In practice, this means virtually every major outlet in the UK, and if that meant I couldn’t pay the bills writing about football, so be it. I don’t want to in any way legitimise their form of hate. Substack seemed like the perfect solution to this problem, and it has absolutely thrilled me that so many of you have been willing to become paid subscribers. Every time I’ve asked for mailbag questions, I couldn’t be prouder of the level of thoughtfulness you all have.
So when I say all this, it’s in the knowledge that Substack has been good for me. I have no idea if I’m big enough here that anyone who works for the company reads my stuff. But I’m increasingly considering whether this is the right platform as my long term home. If I were to move, it would be in a situation where nothing changed for paid subscribers; you’d still get the emails in your inbox without having to do anything. But I hope it doesn’t come to this. I hope Substack can still find some way to avoid moving further into the transphobia rabbit hole. If not, this might no longer be the right place for me.