When Swansea City visit Arsenal this Saturday, Bob Bradley will become the first American to manage a team in the Premier League. Like it or not, American fans of the game have almost as much to win or lose as Bradley himself.
In the most recent issue of the New York-based football quarterly Eight By Eight, Canadian journalist John Doyle wrote a thoughtful article about the Premier League’s ambivalent relationship with foreign managers (“Alien Invasion,” 66-71). Focusing on José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, and Antonio Conte, but also looking back to pioneers Arsène Wenger, Gerard Houllier, and Rafael Benítez, Doyle read in the Premier League’s treatment of foreign managers a kind of parable to England’s ambivalent relationship with Europe as a whole. Doyle suggests a tacit acknowledgement that foreign managers outperform Brits is matched by a need to reduce these managers to national caricatures–the Machiavellian Portuguese, the intellectual Spaniard, the fiery Italian–creating a palatable theater for the home market.
I will confess that I find much in Doyle’s reflections compelling. But when Bob Bradley takes charge of Swansea City on Saturday, there will be none of the cultural anxiety generated by the continental foreigners of Doyle’s article. Bradley comes from a nation without football, a fact which will undoubtedly fuel a great deal of nationalist caricature but little acknowledgement, tacit or otherwise, of anything but the oxymoronic nature of an American football manager.
I do not know enough about Bradley’s managerial progress since he left the US Men’s National team to comment thoughtfully on how or how effectively Bradley will manage Swansea City. Conor Dowley (who typically writes on Napoli for SBNation) seems to think he will be a good fit at the moment, while Gabriele Marcotti (writing for the American-owned ESPN) offers a more wary but ultimately optimistic assessment. What I do know is that Swansea’s performance under Bradley will serve as a referendum on the state of American football.
As a manager, Bradley’s performance will matter much more for the reputation of American football than do those of individual players. It’s not that Americans aren’t invested in their countrymen playing abroad, and it’s certainly not that those players don’t labor under the same prejudices which face an American coach like Bradley (though it should be said that they are hardly alone, as Asian, Middle Eastern, African, and Eastern European players all in their own ways labor against racial and/or nationalist prejudices). At the end of the day, though, an American player is not a conversation changer. For all his promise, Christian Pulisic will neither confirm nor condemn the state of American football. Even should he turn into a legitimate superstar at a top club like Dortmund–and he is a long way from that at present–he will simply be a great American player.
Managers, however, occupy a heightened mental space, for precisely the reasons that Doyle outlined in his article. They are particularly important figures in the theater of the game, and thus for the metaphorical clash of nations. As an American, Bradley carries the weight of a nation that rejected football (ironically giving that name instead to a game that uses neither foot nor ball). His every decision, the outcome of each Swansea match under his regime, will be judged in terms of the possibilities and limitations of American football. If he succeeds, it is at least possible he will succeed as an individual–but how very much it will mean to American fans of the Premier League. If he fails, however, he will unquestionably do so as an American manager.
Bradley is certainly not helped by the recent purchase of Swansea City by American investors, Stephen Kaplan and Jason Levien (currently part-owners of the Memphis Grizzlies and DC United respectively). Though the story from the club itself consistently emphasizes that long-standing chairman Huw Jenkins was the one impressed by and responsible for the hiring of Bob Bradley, it is easy to understand the skepticism of fans. Unlike managers, American owners are already a fixture in the Premier League, and it is difficult to determine whether the greedy American or the nefarious Asian owner is a worse fate in the eyes of British fans (at least Middle Eastern or Russian ownership can bring transformative wealth, however much David Conn disapproves). Whatever the reality of the situation, Swansea’s current ownership means that Bradley will bear the double weight of American ownership and management hanging over his decisions.
In fact, the ever increasing presence of American ownership in the Premier League points to economic anxieties about the United States that more than make up for the lack of football know-how anxiety. While there is not much concern that Americans will be joining Continental Europeans above Brits in the managerial pecking order, there are quite powerful reasons for them–for everyone–to enjoy American failure. This broader anxiety about international decline, which David Winner (in Those Feet) has described as the phantom limb of Empire, should ensure that any failures Bradley endures will be understood pre-eminently as American failures.
While the underlying source of the anxiety–the passing of British supremacy–remains the same, the import for Bradley’s reception will likely be reversed. If continental football reveals the English as energetic and courageous but a bit dull, Americans allow Brits to feel sophisticated and urbane, very nearly continental. The “stoopid American” parody from FourFourTwo about the cultural rift between Bradley and the Swansea locker room offers a good sense of the levity awaiting Bradley’s every slip or misfire.
Yet to criticize British fans for overdetermining Bradley’s performance with American-ness is to ignore the very similar hopes and fears of American fans themselves, particularly the sorts of fans who have predominantly attached themselves to the Premier League. FourFourTwo‘s Bradley, after all, is tame in comparison with NBCSports‘s Ted Lasso, the fictional American coach of Tottenham Hotspur, portrayed by Jason Sudeikis, that the network used to advertise both its first and second seasons of Premier League coverage in the US.
There are a number of different kinds of US football fans, of course, but the ones most attached to the Premier League tend to be affluent, urban, and decidedly europhilic if not euro-snobbish in their footballing attitudes. While they may enjoy a bit of self-parody, they–we–remain desperately eager for European approval. Whether MLS-berating, self-conscious eurosnobs, or rose-tinted MLS and USMNT apologists, these American fans undoubtedly look to Europe and especially to England for approval. Bob Bradley’s success or failure in a Premier League job is not something this group of fans can look on with indifference.
One thing is for certain: Jenkins, Kaplan, and Levien have not given Bradley a gentle introduction. Opening against Arsenal is a serious test. In addition to being a difficult game, Bradley will have to contend with spoiling Swansea’s recent record of success at the Emirates (three wins in the last four) should his side lose. Bradley will then need to get points out of Watford home and Stoke City away, with Manchester United, Everton, and Tottenham Hotspur waiting in November and early December. While the American manager has already sought to downplay his nationality, that tack seems unlikely to really hold on either side of the Atlantic. Though it remains to be seen just how stoopid Bob Bradley is, his successes and failures will almost certainly be judged as American.