Sports are cruel. There, we said it. They play with our emotions, mess with our hearts, fill us with joy and smash it just as quickly. Every team has known what it’s like to lose a big game, but how about a full season of losing? How about a decade? How about a lifetime?
There are unhappy fan bases all over soccer, but if your definition of pain is not winning every trophy or getting knocked out of the Champions League in the quarterfinals, think again. You’ve not heard anything yet.
Last year’s edition of the Misery Index focused on more historical sides with a long string of failure; this time around, ESPN’s writers shine a light on those teams both big and small that are suffering right now, explaining why it’s so tough to be among the faithful.
Manchester United: A super-club left for dust by its rivals
Manchester United are mired in misery right now, but don’t expect anyone to have sympathy for supporters of the most successful team in English football history.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in May 2013, leaving the club as champions, United have failed to even challenge for the Premier League title. They’ve also been unable to finish above neighbours City in any season since Ferguson stepped down; their past success is why nobody will shed a tear for United’s difficulties. But there is a United fans’ banner that might explain why it hurts so much to follow United right now.
Referencing the song “Sit Down” by Mancunian band James, it says, “If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.” And that’s the problem for United in an era that has been dominated by Liverpool and City. The riches of the recent past are becoming a painful memory of how it used to be, with every step taken by the club to get back to its position of dominance ultimately proving to be a stumble and a fall.
All of which bring us to the here and now and why it is so bad to be a United supporter. Yes, the club re-signed Cristiano Ronaldo in the summer, 12 years after his £80m world record move to Real Madrid, but that’s been a rare highlight this season. United were humiliated in a 5-0 defeat against bitter rivals Liverpool at Old Trafford last month and two weeks later, Manchester City strolled to the most comfortable 2-0 win you have ever seen in front of over 70,000 miserable United supporters.
Visiting fans routinely mock manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but despite growing disenchantment among United players and supporters, the Norwegian remains in his job. Sources have told ESPN that the former United forward has lost the faith of several senior players who have grown frustrated with his tactical shortcomings, as wellas his failure to hand opportunities to under-used players including Donny van de Beek and Jesse Lingard. And despite Ronaldo’s goals, including a number of crucial late winners or equalisers, the future looks bleak.
No club has won more domestic titles than United, whose haul of 20 is one more than the 19 collected by traditional rivals Liverpool. Since the start of the Premier League in 1992-93, United have won 13 titles alone; nobody else comes close. Chelsea and Manchester City, with five each, would need to win every Premier League title for the remainder of this decade simply to pull level. Yet City and Liverpool are streets ahead, under world-class coaches Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, and there is no sign of United getting back to the top anytime soon. — Mark Ogden
Barcelona: Messi’s gone… what’s left?
The cracks were already showing on the pitch and behind the scenes in recent years, but the sacking of coach Ernesto Valverde in January 2020 accelerated Barcelona toward rock bottom. What happened over the succeeding 22 months can be best described in social media parlance as “the banter years: a thread.”
Two more managers (Quique Setien and Ronald Koeman) have been dismissed since, while disgraced president Josep Maria Bartomeu resigned after a fan movement against him. Lionel Messi wanted to leave last year but was forced stay; this year, he wanted to stay but had to leave. The club couldn’t afford to renew his contract, and he joined Paris Saint-Germain for nothing. Luis Suarez was forced out after the 8-2 defeat to Bayern Munich the previous year, going on to score the goals that secured the title last season for rivals Atletico Madrid.
The rush to get rid of Suarez — and other veterans such as Ivan Rakitic, Arturo Vidal and Antoine Griezmann — was due to a desperate need to reduce the wage bill. Players have accepted pay cuts and pay deferrals since the coronavirus pandemic first struck, but further reductions are still needed, with the club’s gross debt standing at €1.4 billion. LaLiga have punished Barca for their losses by reducing their spending limit — essentially, the money they can use on salaries and signings — from over €600m pre-pandemic to a measly €97m this season.
Then there’s the online smear campaign Bartomeu ran against club legends, which led to his arrest earlier this year and sparked various resignations from the previous board. Chaos off the pitch has led to defeats on it against Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern (again) and Benfica — and the list could go on.
Joan Laporta’s return as president, the appointment of Xavi Hernandez as coach and a promising crop of youngsters are finally cause for optimism at Camp Nou, but supporters will be wary of getting too excited. If the past 22 months have taught them anything, it’s that the next crisis is never too far away at this dysfunctional club. — Sam Marsden
Norwich City: A team without a league?
The basic facts of Norwich’s Premier League existence are stark: They’re bottom of the table and will likely continue their yo-yo existence as effectively the “21st-best club” in England. They/ve scored more than once just once in their past 29 Premier League matches spanning this campaign and their last in the top flight, back in 2019-20, and have won just one of their past 21 Premier League games. They might as well start planning for life in the Championship again.
But behind all the doom and gloom are buds of hope. The international break allowed them to start fresh, with ex-Aston Villa manager Dean Smith brought in to replace Daniel Farke. This is the next stage of Norwich’s evolution — a club without a wealthy benefactor but one that is self-sufficient. They were the 11th-highest spenders in Europe over the summer, focusing their recruitment on youth, including the U.S. striker Josh Sargent, and they have one of the most astute sporting directors in Stuart Webber.
Webber is not afraid to break through the wall of public platitudes, and after their 7-0 hammering at the hands of Chelsea, he finally had enough. “We’ve not come to this league to be tourists and swapping shirts with other players; we’re here to show we can stay in this league and compete in this league,” Webber said in late October. At that time, while Norwich were preparing for the visit of Leeds United, he also called out the club’s supporters, saying the home matches had “felt a bit flat,” while he turned on the team’s critics, as well.
One prominent radio station had been particularly critical, with ex-Spurs midfielder Jamie O’Hara calling them an “embarrassment” and suggesting the league should be reduced to 18 teams; Webber said he felt Norwich were being “bullied.” “It’s time to fight back,” Webber said, emphasising that his team are having a go rather than just “banking the money” and running.
The Smith appointment has brought some optimism back to Carrow Road. They’re still clear favourites for the drop in what would be their second relegation from the Premier League in three seasons, but Webber and Norwich have built a sustainable model. They’ve invested £12m into their training facilities, have an impressive youth academy and now have a proven Premier League manager in Smith. The next couple of months will be fascinating.
“Ultimately, it’s about getting results on the pitch,” Webber said. “If we lose, we’ll keep getting hammered and we’ll feed that narrative; we’ve got to change that.” — Tom Hamilton
Juventus: An Italian giant that gambled and lost
Rather than their saviour as he was expected to be, in many ways Cristiano Ronaldo became Juventus’ doom.
The Serie A giants veered away from a harmonious plan that had yielded total domestic dominance — prior to Ronaldo’s arrival, they’d won the Serie A and Coppa Italia double in each of the four previous seasons — but threw that all away to go all-in on winning in Europe, having last won the Champions League in 1995-96, in order to capitalize on Ronaldo’s arrival at the club. Since his arrival, they’ve changed managers at the end of every season and have failed to make it past the quarterfinal stage of the Europe’s prestige competition.
But it has been over the past 12 months that they have seriously plummeted. A shocking round-of-16 elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Lyon in 2020 saw the Juve hierarchy dispense with manager Maurizio Sarri and turn to unproven Andrea Pirlo; and for the first time in a decade, they failed to win the title. An inconsistent end to the 2020-21 season, in which they lost 3-0 at home to AC Milan, saw them sneak into the top four on the final day of the campaign, but only thanks to Napoli’s failure to beat Verona.
Massimiliano Allegri came back as manager in May, but immediately had to deal with Ronaldo’s departure at the end of the transfer window, and the result has been four defeats from their first 12 matches, with the Bianconeri in eighth place and 14 points off top spot. A run of four successive 1-0 wins across all competitions, which included a victory over European champions Chelsea, suggested Allegri had got his magic back. But that was followed by shock defeats to Sassuolo and Verona.
Quite simply, Juve are nowhere near where they want to be and, after the chaos of the Ronaldo era, without a clear plan on how to get there. — Andrew Cesare Richardson
Derby County: Points deductions point to a bleak future
It’s only November, but Derby County already know they are almost certain to be relegated from the Championship, England’s second division. After a stint as interim player/manager, pernament manager Wayne Rooney has led the Rams to three wins and nine draws this season, but those 18 hard-earned points have been wiped out following sanctions imposed by the English Football League for breaking financial regulations.
Docked 12 points for entering administration in September, they were hit with a further nine-point penalty on Tuesday after admitting breaching the league’s accounting rules, which means Derby will kick off against Bournemouth on Sunday with -3 points — a massive 18 points away from safety.
Just weeks before the start of the season, Derby only had nine registered players, two of whom were goalkeepers, in their first-team squad. Despite being under a transfer embargo, they were granted special permission to sign free agents in July in order to ensure former Manchester United and England captain Rooney could field a competitive team. A Premier League side as recently as 2007-08, they are now set to sink to the third tier of English football for the first time in 35 years.
Derby are looking for new owners, and their supporters can only hope whoever takes over can get the club — which regularly attracts attendances of more than 20,000 to Pride Park — moving in the right direction. Now though, it already looks like games against Accrington Stanley and Cambridge United are on the cards for next season. There are still 29 games left of the campaign, but after surviving relegation to League One on the final day of last season, it would take a minor miracle to repeat it. — Rob Dawson
FC Cincinnati: Setting a new standard for poor performance in MLS
In Major League Soccer, where parity is a function of the league’s design, no team should ever remain in the basement for too long. It was that way when the league launched in 1996 with just 10 teams, and it is even more the case now as basic math probably makes it harder to finish in last place in a 27-team league.
During the league’s first 20 years, no team finished at the bottom in back-to-back seasons, and through 2018, Chicago was the only continuous club that had ever finished in last place three times in its entire existence. (San Jose has finished in last place four times, but two came after the original club moved to Houston and was reborn with the same name.)
Then along came FC Cincinnati.
Since its debut season in 2019, Cincinnati has significantly lowered the bar for how to define ineptitude in MLS. It has finished in last place all three years since joining the league, finishing with a lower points-per-game average than the prior season each time. FCC’s three-year goal differential (minus-105) is 66 below the next-worse team during that span (Vancouver Whitecaps), and it has fewer points than both 2020 expansion clubs, Nashville and Inter Miami, despite having played 34 more games.
After spending a reported $13 million on Brazilian youth international (and Designated Player) Brenner and bringing Luciano Acosta back to MLS in the offseason, there were heightened expectations, only for the club to manage just 20 points, its points per game average (0.59) in 2021 entering the record books as the fourth-worst clip in MLS history.
New general manager Chris Albright, who was hired last month after serving as the technical director for the Philadelphia Union, has a difficult task in reshaping the culture. — Kyle Bonagura
Hertha Berlin: When over-promising, under-delivering becomes a brand
For most of Europe’s better sporting nations, a country’s capital city has a large role to play in its football. London has the defending Champions League winners (Chelsea). Madrid has two of LaLiga’s three heavyweights in Atletico and Real. Paris has PSG. Amsterdam has Ajax. Rome has … well … AS Roma and Lazio are sometimes relevant. This isn’t the case for Berlin, though it’s not for a lack of effort.
German champions in 1930 and 1931, Hertha reached the UEFA Cup semis in 1979 and enjoyed a solid run of form at the turn of the century. But they’ve been twice relegated from the Bundesliga in the past 12 years, and they seemed doomed to relegation last season before a late rally. Only an unsustainable run in close matches — 10 points from six matches decided by 0-1 goals — is keeping them above the drop zone a third of the way through 2021-22.
Hertha minority owner Lars Windhorst is prevented by the 50+1 rule from taking as much control of the club as he would like, but the decisions he’s made with his money haven’t worked out. Failed runs with Jurgen Klinsmann (three months, from Nov. 2019 to Feb. 2020) and Bruno Labbadia (April 2020 to Jan. 2021) as manager led to the return of former manager Pal Dardai. Windhorst has paid at least $11 million in transfer fees for six players over the past three years and only one — midfielder Santiago Ascacibar — at most, has lived up to the price; two are already gone, and one has been loaned out.
Hertha in 2021-22 is a team without an identity: a direct attack that can’t create quality scoring chances; a passive defense that neither pressures opponents nor clogs shooting lanes. They have scored the fifth-fewest goals and allowed the second most. Their best players are young, but neither as young nor as good as those of other German clubs.
Unless they keep their close-game magic going, they appear destined for another relegation scrap. Any boxer will tell you: Fight enough of those fights and you eventually lose one. — Bill Connelly
Deportivo La Coruna: A team still waiting to get back where it belongs
Deportivo La Coruna are top of the table with seven wins from 11 games. So what are they doing in the Misery Index? Well, that table is Group 1 of the Primera RFEF. To clarify: A club that won LaLiga in 2000 and were denied a place in the 2004 Champions League final by Jose Mourinho’s Porto now find themselves in Spanish football’s third tier.
Depor no longer compete with Celta Vigo, the other big club from Galicia in Spain’s wild northwest; last year, they were beaten at home by Celta’s reserves, Celta B. This was rock bottom.
Few clubs can claim to have consistently challenged the Madrid-Barcelona duopoly, but Depor genuinely did, and their league title in 2000 wasn’t a one-off. They fell just short in 1994 and 1995 and made the top three nine times in 12 years. They played Champions League football five years in a row and were regulars in the knockout stages.
None of it was sustainable. Depor’s success was built on a debt that eventually grew to be 16 times their annual budget. The decline was slow and staggered, with their first two relegations followed by immediate returns to Primera. They went down again in 2018, lost the playoff final the next year then imploded. Last season found them in the semiprofessional third tier for the first time in 40 years. This is still a giant of a club, though: Their 17,000 season-ticket holders beats many top-flight clubs. This month, a staggering 12,189 were in attendance as their kids beat Maccabi Haifa 5-1 in the UEFA Youth League. — Alex Kirkland
Schalke: Will the debt sink them for good?
After relegation from the Bundesliga, five different managers, boardroom turmoil and financial uncertainty engulfing the club in 2020 and 2021, life as a Schalke fan can hardly be dull, but how they long for some stability. Yet nothing can be taken for granted in Gelsenkirchen, as Schalke look to navigate their way out of the incredibly competitive and compelling Bundesliga 2 and back to the top flight.
Schalke fans must hope last season was the nadir. It finished with fans chasing and attacking their players in April, outside the stadium, after relegation was confirmed, just a couple of seasons after Schalke were in the last 16 of the Champions League. Their fall from grace has been well-documented, but it revolves around gambling on long-term success with high wages and pricey transfers, as they slowly slipped down the league while the club imploded behind the scenes. The departure of controversial billionaire benefactor Clemens Tonnies in summer 2020 led to restructuring behind the scenes as the club sought to drastically cut its wage bill and stabilise their finances, but the club failed to find its feet last term and finished rock bottom of the Bundesliga.
In spite of all this, Schalke are still the second-biggest club in German football, with 155,000 members (German teams are owned by the fans), and have an incredibly passionate support. They are fifth in the second division after assembling a competitive squad of lesser-known players on a tight budget, but they suffered the ignominy of a DFL-Pokal Cup exit to third-tier 1860 Munich, and there’s a feeling that turbulence is never far away. After three straight defeats in the league, sporting director Rouven Schroder gave manager Dimitrios Grammozis the dreaded vote of confidence (usually closely followed by the manager getting fired).
There also are concerning long-term ramifications if they fail to get promotion this season, with the club’s head of finance calling the situation “challenging.” Having played last season behind closed doors due to the pandemic, the club posted a deficit of €21 million for the first half of 2021, and turnover also was down; but they are optimistic they can start chipping away at their €217 million debt, with projections aiming to bring that below the €200 million mark by the start of 2022.
Overall, there is a better feeling around the club, with Grammozis and Schroder positive in the media; the appointment of ex-Bayer Leverkusen director Bernd Schroder as CEO (starting Jan. 1) also has brought a renewed sense of optimism to the club. They’re only four points off league leaders St. Pauli. Surely, Schalke’s luck must change eventually. — Hamilton
FC Juarez: No way up for Liga MX’s worst
Liga MX is proof that even the most miserable team can one day get their due — see Cruz Azul, who were prominent in last season’s Misery Index, winning the title in 2021 — but FC Juarez are just the latest franchise in a city known for soccer heartbreak, with no relief in sight.
This season, the team’s biggest news story was an embarrassing news conference rant in which manager Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti tossed out misogynistic and anti-gay slurs at reporters. Though the outburst was enough to get a three-game suspension from Liga MX, Juarez’s news release was in the vein of “apologies if you were offended,” deflecting blame from their coach in the process.
On the pitch, Los Bravos finished third from the bottom, winning four of 17 games and finishing the season with the worst goal differential in the league. Though bolstered by Mexico’s generous format, which allows 12 out of 18 teams to vie for a spot in the postseason, Juarez won just once in their last seven games, essentially destroying any chance of survival.
As mentioned above, Ciudad Juarez, which borders El Paso, Texas, in the United States, is a city long known for failure and sorrow when it comes to top division soccer. Their first franchise, Cobras de Juarez, were an initial success, climbing out of the second division and enjoying a five-year run in the top flight before going back down in 1992. Money issues eventually shuttered the franchise in 1994, leaving the city without a pro team of any kind for more than a decade.
In 2008, Indios de Ciudad Juarez seemed primed to be a Cinderella story: They qualified for the playoffs within a year of winning promotion, pushing past giants Chivas and Club America in the process, and were one goal away from reaching the Clausura 2009 final before bowing out in the semifinals. The very next season, they went the entire regular season without winning a game. Soon after, they suffered the same fate as Cobras, failing to survive the drop and later going bankrupt.
Bravos, ultimately, have a pretty good silver lining for solace: Mexico has done away with relegation in Liga MX, at least temporarily. The bad news? The same family who once owned Cobras and Indios and let those teams go by the wayside is also in charge of this latest franchise. — Eric Gomez
Oldham Athletic: A team in danger of disappearing
Oldham Athletic’s stadium has developed a long-standing reputation as the coldest in English football. Former manager Joe Royle, who guided the club to two FA Cup semifinals and its last promotion (in 1991), nicknamed the ground “Ice Station Zebra,” because winter tends to run from August to May at Boundary Park. Then the club was relegated from the Premier League in 1994, and it’s been in a downward spiral ever since.
ESPN reported last month on Oldham’s perilous position. They occupy one of the two relegation positions at the bottom of EFL League Two, and if they fail to escape the drop zone, they’ll become the first team to drop out of the Football League having previously been a Premier League club.
When Royle left Oldham to take charge of Everton in 1994, the club had employed just two managers in 24 years. Keith Curle is now Oldham’s 32nd manager since Royle departed, and the club also has had four different owners in that time. It has been a tale of woe ever since. Relegation to the EFL Championship in 1994 was followed by relegation to League One three years later. Oldham spent the next 21 seasons treading water in the third tier, reaching the playoff semifinals just twice in that time, before dropping into League Two in 2018.
The fans have had nothing — absolutely nothing — to celebrate in almost 30 years, and they are now bracing themselves for another relegation, if the club survives long enough to suffer the pain of dropping out of the league.
Team owner Abdallah Lemsagam is the focus of fan protests, and there are concerns the club could go bust if debts to the owners of the ground are called in anytime soon. Back in the first Premier League season, in 1992-93, Oldham beat Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea at Boundary Park. Now, any win will do, no matter who it comes against. — Ogden