Anyone whose point of reference for British professional soccer is the globally successful Apple TV series Ted Lasso may believe that all a team needs to turn its fading fortunes around is a relentlessly cheerful American college-football coach with a knack for improvised folk wisdom. Events these past weeks in the savagely competitive and highly lucrative Premier League, however, suggest that managing a top men’s team is too tough even for the most experienced head coaches.
The Monday before last, one of the world’s pre-eminent soccer clubs, North London’s Tottenham Hotspur—known widely as Spurs—let go of their Italian manager, Antonio Conte. They are now hunting for their fourth coach in as many years.
A week later, on the other side of London, the American chairman and co-owner of Chelsea, Todd Boehly, fired a manager who had been hired only last September, on a five-year contract. He was the 13th Premier League manager to be let go in a season that began in August—there are only 20 in total.
It was the unraveling of Conte’s 17 months at Tottenham that was more spectacular, however, and it had been a coming storm for a while. For one, Conte, a distinguished ex-player in Italy with a solid career in management in Italy and England, had gotten inconsistent results since taking over the team, in November 2021. Then there’s the fact that Spurs have failed to win a trophy for the last 15 years, a problem that well pre-dates Conte’s time prowling the Tottenham “technical area,” the white-lined box from which managers are required to do their touchline coaching.
By most clubs’ standards, Tottenham was doing all right. They were fourth in the league; they have a spectacular new $1 billion stadium and a huge, loyal fan base. Ask any cab driver in London which club he supports and it’s more than likely to be Spurs.
But after a disappointing tie two weeks ago against bottom-of-the-table Southampton, Conte couldn’t help letting loose what must have been one of the most stinging verbal attacks ever unleashed by a manager on a team. In an unusual turn of events that surely sealed his fate, the tirade was directed at his own club.
“I see selfish players. I see players that don’t want to help each other, don’t play with heart,” a grim-faced Conte, aged 53, said at the post-match press conference. “It is the same every season, no matter who the manager is. They’re used to it here.... They don’t want to play under pressure. They don’t want to play under stress.”
“Until now,” he said toward the end of his 10-minute, heavily accented tirade, “I try to hide the situation[,] but now … this is unacceptable and also unacceptable for the fans.”
The speech was surprising given Conte’s previously good, often warm, relationship with his players. Less surprising: the Southampton game turned out to be his last coaching Tottenham. He returned to Italy, where he’s from, and was still there when he agreed to leave the club “by mutual consent.”
Opinion among Tottenham fans, the wider soccer audience, and sports pundits is split over whether Conte was trying to shift the blame for his modest managerial performance onto someone else, or if he had a point.
Sixty years ago, soccer players earned little more than a factory wage and often traveled to games on the same bus as their fans. Today, at top British clubs, some men as young as 18 earn millions a year, drive Porsches and Ferraris, and have private security. Tottenham’s premier players earn a reported $12 million a year, while those at other clubs are paid as much as $25 million. Meanwhile, Conte was reportedly earning $18.2 million per season—in the Premier League, only Liverpool and Manchester United’s coaches make more, earning $19.3 million and $22.9 million, respectively. Chelsea’s hapless Graham Potter was earning just $14 million a year.
Many other managers have talked in general terms about the difficulty of motivating a locker room packed with multi-millionaires, who can shrug off a roasting from their coach and demand to be traded to a different team if they don’t feel appreciated. And as the ranks fill with young players who come from a generation for whom going into the office is a matter of debate, it’s more difficult still.
However, even if Conte is justified in telling an inconvenient truth, his timing was unfortunate.
For among a pretty talented group at Tottenham is one Harry Kane, who is regarded not only as football’s consummate professional but is also the most successful captain of the English national team in recent memory and is much loved by his fans. Within a week of Conte’s savaging of Spurs players, Kane, 29, became the all-time-record goal scorer for England. Moreover, he’s paid around $2,500 a game for national-team appearances, and, like the other players, he donates that salary to charity. So it’s hard to make the argument that all of Tottenham’s players are of the selfish, lazy sort.
Nevertheless, Tottenham fans are fatalistically agreed on one certainty: something in Tottenham’s culture ensures their travails will continue with whichever well-paid sucker gets the job next.
Michael Coren, a Toronto-based Anglican priest, author, and columnist who has been a Tottenham fan for 60 years, points out that a new adjective, “Spursy,” is so widely used that it is being considered by the Collins English Dictionary. It means “to have success in reach but to ultimately chuck it away.”
“Even when we’ve had the greatest players, we’ve always found a way not to win,” Coren says. “We can be the best team and still somehow lose.”
For Coren and fans like him, Conte’s inability to sufficiently alter the DNA of the club made him part of the problem. “I liked Conte, but I blame him. He was incredibly irresponsible. Harry Kane could go to any team in the world and has chosen to stay at Tottenham, even when they don’t win trophies. That’s not selfishness.”
London sports and politics columnist Matthew Norman, another lifelong fan, argues that Tottenham suffers from trying to be a successful business.
“It’s the only major club that the owners try to run to make money,” Norman says. Joe Lewis, a British businessman and investor, has an 85.55 percent controlling interest in the team through ENIC International Limited, which previously owned interests in other football clubs but has since divested.
Unlike some other Premier League teams, such as those that are owned by Arab investors and held as status symbols—Manchester City, Aston Villa, and Newcastle United, for example—Tottenham satisfies a more strictly financial need for Lewis.
Norman adds, “They often sell their best players when they’re at their peak. It’s not a model that suits the sport. The only solution is a vastly rich foreign owner prepared to lose money, but the Arab investors don’t like that they are in a deeply unfashionable and impoverished part of London.”
And indeed, there’s another consideration that may be a little awkward for potential Arab investors: Tottenham Hotspur has long been regarded as a predominantly Jewish football club, owing to its support among North London Jews. Though today other ethnicities also support Spurs, the club’s ownership is still largely Jewish, and anti-Semites from opposition teams’ fan bases have long referred to Spurs as “The Yids.”
While the club, the league, and even government figures have tried to stamp this out, many Tottenham fans have taken this racist abuse as a badge of honor and now chant about their team as the “Yid Army.” Suffice it to say that a fan base who self-identifies by a racial epithet isn’t exactly a selling point for interested buyers.
But that’s not even the biggest of Spurs’ problems.
“Conte is right that there’s a deep DNA cultural problem with the club,” says Norman, who was once banned from Spurs games for several weeks after writing rude comments about the C.E.O., Daniel Levy.
“It’s a defeatist milieu, lacking ambition, refusing to make the necessary investment to bring in the best players. There’s a gulf between what the successful clubs pay and Spurs. I think Conte’s rant was just a way of getting out early.”
“It’s not accidental that we don’t win trophies,” Norman concludes.
Is there a life for Conte after coaching Spurs? It’s hard to see such a loose cannon as anything other than a liability, even if he had been a successful manager.
One thing in the Tottenham Hotspurs’ future, meanwhile, is certain. The club, which was the subject of a 2020 Amazon Prime documentary called All or Nothing (plot spoiler—it’s nothing), is ripe for its own drama series focusing on the Antonio Conte era. This show—the antidote, perhaps, to the feel-good Ted Lasso—might ground viewers in the fact that, in today’s world, it’ll take a lot more than a pep talk, or a foamy-mouthed rant, to make a successful Premiership team.
Based in London and New York, AIR MAIL’s tech columnist, Jonathan Margolis, spent more than two decades as a technology writer for the Financial Times. He is also the author of A Brief History of Tomorrow, a book on the history of futurology