Why Europe’s best football clubs hail from the provinces

Image of Simon Kuper

There is something odd about Europe’s biggest football clubs: they aren’t from Europe’s biggest cities. Manchester United, Milan, Barcelona and Bayern Munich are provincial clubs. According to a recent survey by the researchers Sport+Markt, the most popular team in each of Europe’s seven largest countries is not from the capital city.

This was one of the quirks that Stefan Szymanski and I stumbled on while writing our new book, Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained. We think we’ve found the explanation.

Let’s take the archetypal provincial city with giant club, Manchester, because what happened there prefigured later events in towns such as Barcelona and Milan. In 1878 a football club for workers of a railway company started up in Manchester. Newton Heath played in work clogs against other works teams. Newton Heath, of course, became Manchester United. What matters here are its origins. The workers were “sucked in from all over the country to service the growing need for locomotives and carriages,” writes Jim White in Manchester United: The Biography.

During the industrial revolution, Manchester’s population jumped from 84,000 in 1800 to 1.25m in 1900. Most “Mancunians” were in fact rootless migrants. Unmoored in a place so brutal that it helped give Karl Marx the idea for communism, many embraced the local football clubs. Football must have offered them something of the sense of community that they had previously known in their villages.

In other British industrial cities, too, migrants adopted football clubs with a fervour unknown in more established towns. Their support brought the clubs success. That success attracted other fans from around Britain, and later from abroad. The industrial revolution still shapes English fandom. Today the region around Manchester and Liverpool has only 11 per cent of the English population. Nonetheless, this season the region is providing eight of the Premier League’s 20 clubs. Their advantage: generations of brand-building. Manchester United is arguably the world’s most popular club largely because Manchester was the first industrial city.

Almost all of Europe’s best football cities were once new industrial centres. Clubs grew bigger here than in capitals or towns with entrenched hierarchies. That’s why no team from Paris, London or Berlin has won the Champions League.

In most leading European football cities, the industrial migrants arrived in a whoosh in the late nineteenth century. Munich had 100,000 inhabitants in 1852, and five times as many in 1901. Barcelona’s population trebled in the same period to 533,000.

The second stage of the football boom in these cities happened in the 1950s and 1960s. During Italy’s postwar “economic miracle”, flocks of poor southern peasants travelled north. Many ended up in Turin making cars for Fiat and became fans of the local team, Juventus.

In all these cities the industrial revolution ended, often painfully. But besides the empty docks and factory buildings, the other legacy of the era was beloved football clubs.

These were the cities with the fewest long-standing hierarchies, the weakest ties between people and place. Here, there were emotional gaps to fill. Contrast these cities with traditionally upper-class towns. In England, Oxford, Cambridge, Cheltenham, Canterbury and York have more than 100,000 inhabitants each. Yet between them they have just one team in the Football League. In places with settled hierarchies, people did not need football to root themselves.

The great exception to the rule is Real Madrid, a giant club from a capital city. Real built its brand in the 1950s, during Franco’s fascist regime. Dictators divert resources to the capital. The boost that Real got under Franco has lasted until now, like the boost that Barcelona got from frenzied industrialisation.

Paris and London, Europe’s giants, will eventually win the Champions League. Then they will dominate all aspects of life in their countries.

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