The signs are everywhere that soccer is on the rise in the U.S.
In August, FIFA announced that the 2026 World Cup would be held partly in the U.S., by which time soccer is expected to be more popular than baseball. In July, Atlanta set a record for MLS attendance record, with 72,000 fans flocking to the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Meanwhile NBC’s billion-dollar deal to broadcast the English Premier League (EPL) has widely increased its popularity in the States.
The EPL’s U.S. success has meant that other European leagues are now eager to expand into the stateside market and keep pace with the massive financial advantages the EPL enjoys. Specifically, the Spanish La Liga hopes to start playing regular league games in the U.S., with the first of these set to feature Barcelona and its smaller Catalan rival Girona, who have asked permission to play in Miami this January.
This proposal, however, has proved extremely controversial — and not just because of the nine hour flight time between Miami and Barcelona. The trans-Atlantic jaunt has raised question about whether soccer fans have a voice in such decisions and about who really has the final say in how a club is run. Perhaps more importantly, it’s about how far the commercialization and capitalization of what’s supposedly a community-based sport can go.
Let’s start off with the main issue, the fans. While Barcelona is a club supported throughout the world, Girona has only played in the top-flight La Liga for two seasons, and has never won anything. So the decision to play in Miami as opposed to their local stadium represents a massive increase in cost to the average fan. Girona has offered to heavily subsidize fans who go to Miami but, as Guardian sport journalist Sid Lowe noted, none of those plans have been approved by the Spanish soccer federation.
“Barca is well known everywhere with supporters’ clubs all around the world, but we are a small club that is…still trying to consolidate our position,” Joaquim Alegret, president of the Supporters’ Clubs of Girona told Bleacher Report. “People are upset because when they paid for their season ticket, nobody told them this could happen.”
That’s because, the decision to play games in the U.S. seems more designed for corporate exposure for the benefit of club’s well-heeled owners than the sanctity of the league. As David Aganzo, president of the Spanish Footballers Association noted, “Footballers are not currency that can be used in business to only benefit third parties.”
Recently, both Barcelona and Girona’s owners have been on the side of extremely dubious financial and political deals. In July, for instance, prosecutors in Spain announced that they were seeking an eleven-year prison sentence and multi-million dollar fine for Barcelona’s former president Sandro Rosell.
Meanwhile, Girona is owned by City Football Group, which is turn owned by the Gulf Emirate Abu Dhabi, which has an appalling human rights record. In fact, corruption — financial and political — has become an endemic part of the game, raising the possibility that matches will just become another asset for dodgy owners use to their own ends.
Finally, there is the ever-thorny issue of Catalan pride. Both Girona and Barcelona belong to a Spanish region that has persistently demanded independence from Spain. According to Spanish newspaper El Español however, 40,000 Spanish flags will be handed out at the game in Miami, while other political symbols would be banned — a move that’s sure to add an unnecessary escalation to the controversy.
Of course, there is now the distinct possibility that the match will not go ahead after all, after the Spanish Prime Minister, FIFA president, and head of the Spanish football federation all agreed that the current match in Miami would not be in the league’s best interests.
But the wider proposition raises a worrying question for soccer fans, who have good reason to suspect that the game is rapidly moving away from an era in which clubs have at least a superficial connection with the community they represent, in favor of a globalized hybrid in which teams play anywhere, at the best of their business owners. In doing so, they risk destroying the very passion that makes the Premier League, La Liga, and soccer as a whole, so well and widely supported.