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Euro 2024 and German efficiency: Forget everything you thought you knew

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Euro 2024 and German efficiency: Forget everything you thought you knew

Follow live coverage of Germany vs Hungary, Croatia vs Albania and Scotland vs Switzerland at Euro 2024 today

Efficiency. Reliability. Functionality.

That’s what many people most associate with Germany, but so far at the 2024 European Championship, none of those cliches have been proven true. Tournament organisers have struggled with crowd control outside stadiums. Fans have endured miserable conditions on the way to and from games. Metro and rail services within the host cities have failed under the extra demand.

It is not what the rest of Europe expected to find.

On Friday night, Euro 2024 began in Munich. The city is used to serving big football crowds, with Bayern Munich selling out their 80,000-capacity Allianz Arena game after game, year after year.

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The journey from the centre of town is usually simple enough, via a metro train (on the U-Bahn) that rattles north and delivers fans at Frottmaning station, which is a 10-minute walk from the stadium. For big games, it can get busy. But outside the ground, for Bundesliga and Champions League matches, everything works well enough and supporters find the areas they need.

On Friday night, it could not have been more different. The line that runs out of Munich and up to Frottmaning ground to a halt. Trains stopped at platforms and in tunnels for long periods and grew fuller. Munich has a warm climate, especially in June, and it was to the great credit of the Germany and Scotland supporters that, even though they were jammed up against each other, with no room to move, the mood stayed calm.

Outside the Allianz Arena — in scenes that have been repeated at other games played since — it was chaos. For Bayern games, fans are signposted towards certain entrances, depending on where in the stadium they are sitting. On Friday, the zoning failed, creating one big queue in front of the ground. Some were outside for hours.

On reaching the front of the line, many fans had no choice but to physically push through the crowds to find their entrance, much to the annoyance of others who misinterpreted what was happening, which resulted in a few fleeting flare-ups.

Organisation around Bundesliga games is generally excellent across the country. Many of the supporters in attendance, particularly the German fans, would also have had prior experience of Allianz Arena before and yet this was wildly different.

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The first game of a major tournament often brings opening-night wrinkles and issues, but what happened in Munich was strange — and it was just the start.


Fans queuing outside the ground on Sunday in Gelsenkirchen (Oguz Yeter/Anadolu via Getty Images)

On Sunday night, England played Serbia in Gelsenkirchen. Bad stories have emerged from before and after the game.

There was gridlock and congestion on the tram service from the station to Arena AufSchalke, the out-of-town stadium, to the extent that some fans chose to walk the entire way instead — about an hour and a half from the city’s central station. England’s 1-0 victory ended up being a sub-plot to stories of crying children, heavy rain and, in a lot of cases, confusion.

Steve Grant, an England fan who follows the team home and abroad, did take public transport to the ground and said overcrowding at the station was so “dangerous” that “if you were stood at the platform edge, you were using your entire body weight to stop yourself being pushed onto the track”. He said there were “no crowd control measures in place at all”.

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After the game, there was more chaos. Another England fan, Alex, described scenes at the main train station as “absolute bedlam” even hours after the final whistle. He had decided to take public transport back, while another friend walked — arriving half an hour before him.

“I couldn’t believe how busy the main station was,” he said. “When we heard the platform announcement for our train, people ran at full pace to reach it — I can’t imagine what it would have been like to take children to the game. Then, when we got to the platform, there was no train. We eventually got back to Dusseldorf (in theory 30 minutes away by intercity train) after 2am.”

Rich Nelson was also in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday night with one of his friends, a wheelchair user.

“It was a right mess,” he said. “Trains were coming to different parts of the platform with no announcement, so you had hundreds of people running to squeeze on. Platforms were altered so Essen trains were coming through when announced as going to Dusseldorf and one train looked like one of the old slam-door British Rail ones.

“We somehow managed to squeeze on thanks to a few people moving and holding doors, but the train took an hour to get to Dusseldorf. The trains have been the poorest and least reliable part of the weekend for us. Not a single train, of the several we took, ran on time and despite us booking ramps (for the wheelchair), Deutsche Bahn staff weren’t interested in helping last night.”

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Gelsenkirchen is one of the smallest Euro 2024 host cities. It is an industrial town which has relatively little nightlife or attraction to travelling supporters and fewer hotel rooms than most. It was inevitable that an enormous stress would be placed on its transport systems on the day of the game itself.

Deutsche Bahn (DB) is the company that runs Germany’s privately-operated, government-funded railway network. Once the gold standard of rail travel in Europe, today it is far from that peak and has been for some time.

While people from outside Germany have been aghast at the delays, those who live in the country are all too familiar with DB’s struggles. Trains are late. Trains do not turn up. Trains change destinations without warning. Connections are missed and people are left stranded.

Sit in a DB carriage when a delay is announced and pay attention to the glances that Germans exchange and how they roll their eyes; it has become a punchline and while some of the issues at Euro 2024 are a surprise, the endless delays and disruptions on the train network are not among them.

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It is a complicated problem without an obvious remedy.


A train in Euro 2024 colours at Berlin’s Olympiastadion S-Bahn station (Andreas Gora/picture alliance via Getty Images)

The services that DB provides are enshrined within the German constitution. The federal government has a responsibility to maintain a service that serves the common good — referring both to its cost and its reliability.

Recent trends are alarming. In 2020, more than 80 per cent of trains arrived on time. In 2021, it was 75 per cent. By the summer of 2023, the punctuality rate had fallen below 60 per cent, beneath the 70 per cent target DB has publicly committed to.

One of the best-known statistics, certainly the one most repeated in German media, is that in 2022 more than 33 per cent of all long-distance trains arrived late to their destination (defined as at least six minutes late). It represented a 10-year low.

In response to a request for comment for this article, a DB spokesperson said the company was “doing everything we can to get soccer fans to their games on time and stress-free”.

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They said the rail system was “at absolute full capacity right now” and DB was “essentially running every train we have”.

Sabrina Wendling of the Pro Rail Alliance, a non-profit interest group for the promotion and improvement of rail transport, says the problems we are seeing are a legacy of underfunding that goes back almost 30 years.

“What we are experiencing now is the heavy burden on a long-neglected railway — with growing traffic at the same time,” she says.

“Past governments have always practised a road-first policy, so that was where the majority of the state’s investments went. That has changed with the present government. But the need for investment is now so high that it will take years to improve the current state of the infrastructure.

“In addition, there is a significant lack of drivers almost everywhere in the country (not only for trains but also for buses and lorries). A lack of drivers often means a dissatisfying frequency of services. This gets very obvious when more people than usual use public transport.”

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By DB’s own admission, their infrastructure is in poor condition. In a network status report published in March 2023, they described it as being “prone to failure”, referencing the number of signal boxes, switches and level crossings that were in inadequate condition.

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The size of the network — in terms of track length — has also been shrinking over the past 30 years. At the same time, as Wendling describes, the number of services operating on it has been steadily increasing. The effect is more and more stress on a network that is suffering from a lack of investment. Since 1994, around half the switches on the network have been removed, which makes it harder for trains to pass one another, making it more important that everything runs on time and more impactful when it does not.

There are other inconveniences and antagonisms throughout the network. With over 200,000 members of staff, DB is one of Germany’s largest employers, but there are still shortages of personnel across the network. Station PA systems are a more minor nuisance. While information is almost always provided in German and English, the acoustics can be poor and the announcements can be difficult to hear. During times of stress, or when platform alterations are being read out, that is particularly difficult for people unfamiliar with the network.

A more macro problem is the sheer size of the company. A long-term conversation, which has no end in sight, relates to whether DB should be broken up to make it more manageable but also to introduce more competition to Germany’s rail services.

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It’s certainly not difficult to see how a cycle of failure has developed or why it has been so dysfunctional during the current tournament. Ultimately, it is a problem that pre-dates Euro 2024 by decades and will continue for many years. While big investment projects are now underway, including building new lines and adding many more connections between major German cities, the result is a huge burden on the taxpayer and, ironically, more disruption as a result of the projects themselves.


Where does the tournament go from here?

There are still parts of it which are going well. The atmosphere in stadiums is good and the quality of the football itself has been excellent to this point. The Germans are wonderful hosts, too, and from Hamburg in the north to Munich in the far south, the country is full of food, drink, architecture and history that will make the experience of being at this European Championship a rich one.

Many of the volunteers, who are not being paid by UEFA, are clearly doing their best under trying circumstances and working extremely hard to help people. While there have been issues with crowding in the fan zones, too, a lot of thought has evidently gone into providing supporters with entertainment around the games. In Munich on Sunday, as chaos developed in the Ruhr Valley, people enjoyed watching the games on an array of vast screens, next to big lakes in the Olympiapark, with activities and live music to entertain children and families between matches.

But, for now, the bad stories are more prominent. Given how much of an effect they are currently having on the tournament, that might remain the case for some time.

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Additional reporting: Dan Sheldon

(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

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Football’s silence over Argentina’s racist chanting is deafening and damning

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Football’s silence over Argentina’s racist chanting is deafening and damning

The telling bit in the video of Enzo Fernandez and other Argentinian players singing a racist song about France following their victory in the Copa America final is the voice you can hear just at the end.

“Corta (el) vivo,” someone says — “stop the live stream.”

They know. They know what they’re saying. They know that what they’re saying is profoundly offensive, and they know what will happen if the outside world hears it.

This isn’t one of those things that can be equivocated. It’s not something that can be denied. The words are clear, and we know the words because it’s a song that has been around for a couple of years.

The words to the chant were: “They play for France, but their parents are from Angola. Their mother is from Cameroon, while their father is from Nigeria. But their passport says French.”

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The song in question came from a group of Argentina fans before the 2022 World Cup final, which was flagged at the time by French anti-racist protestors as an “expression of a far-right ideology”.

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Frankly it’s bad enough that Argentina, presumably insulated from a PR perspective by their victory at the World Cup, didn’t seek to distance themselves more from the song, but the fact the players seem to have incorporated it into their celebrations is so much worse. If nothing else, it speaks to an unpleasant collective mentality and pervading culture that a group of players, at a moment of triumph, would choose this song as part of their celebrations.

It’s also worth noting, without wishing to detract from the blatant racism, the transphobia that is at play here too. The full lyrics of the song make reference to French players being “cometravas, like Mbappe.” “Cometravas” is a slang term that essentially translates as “someone who has sex with transgender people”.

Football in general has made positive steps to make the game more welcoming for LGBTQ+ people. Players who actively choose not to participate in anti-homophobia campaigns are thankfully few and far between, and those that do are often punished — like Monaco midfielder Mohamed Camara who, after covering up an anti-homophobia message on his shirt last season, was suspended for four games.

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Things like this song, however, do not help and in fact actively harm the effort to make football a more inclusive place.

But if the song itself and the gleeful willingness of the players involved to sing it was not depressing enough, the aftermath has been almost as bad.

Fernandez himself issued an apology of sorts, claiming that he got “caught up in the euphoria of our Copa America celebrations” and the song did not “reflect my character or beliefs”. He also said, rather laughably, that “I stand against discrimination in all forms”. Let’s just say that when he is inevitably forced to participate in some sort of anti-racism campaign in the weeks or months to come, his words will ring hollow.

Chelsea themselves reacted in fairly responsible fashion, putting out a statement that set out their own position and values, saying they will use this as “an opportunity to educate” and that they have started an internal disciplinary procedure.

It will be interesting to see what comes of that process, given that if Fernandez was a fan and was caught singing that song in the stands at Stamford Bridge, he would be looking at the ugly end of a fairly lengthy stadium ban.

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Beyond that though, things have been very quiet.

Wesley Fofana, the French Chelsea defender, called it “uninhibited racism”. David Datro Fofana, the club’s Ivory Coast striker, put a statement on Instagram saying that “racism in all its forms should be condemned in the strongest possible terms” and that the fight against racism “needs to be taken seriously by everyone involved in the sport”.


David Datro Fofana has also condemned the incident (Craig Mercer/MB Media/Getty Images)

It’s the last bit that feels the most pertinent. Because aside from those two responses, plus a picture posted by Nicolas Jackson of Fernandez hugging a black child, the meaning of which is open to interpretation, there’s not been much else.

Only black players have acknowledged the incident publicly so far. No white players have condemned the song. Perhaps some of Fofana’s white team-mates have offered private support, but as things stand there has been nothing beyond that.

As will be depressingly familiar, it is the black players that have been left to do the emotional work, to carry the mental baggage of having to deal with a racist incident. It enforces the idea that racism is a problem only for black people, when it’s a blight that shames us all. It isolates the black players, suggesting that it’s not something that anyone else has to worry about.

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Imagine the power that would come from a white player standing up, unprompted, and condemning the song. It would provide a valuable symbol, but it would be more than just a surface-level thing. It would have genuine import.

The clubs of the other players in the video have, at the time of writing, decided not to comment. It is, in fairness, a little tricky to definitively identify exactly who is singing in the video, but everyone seems to be trying their best to ignore the issue entirely.

Perhaps we could give them the benefit of the doubt and say that, in time, they will speak to their Argentinian players and remind them of their responsibilities — not as footballers or representatives of a club, but as human beings. But at the moment it would seem that they are just hoping the whole thing goes away.

Even if it is tough to identify the individuals doing the singing, anyone who sat in silence while such a racist song was being sung probably could do with at least a talking-to. Surely the least we can expect from the clubs is for them to acknowledge the incident, that they will investigate and if it is found that any of their players were involved, they would face the appropriate punishment.

Chelsea are the only club to have said anything so far, not that we should necessarily be handing out extra credit for that: after all, they couldn’t possibly have avoided it.

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Elsewhere though, crickets. For all the glossy campaigns and well-intentioned initiatives and solemnly shot ‘No to racism’ UEFA videos, when so much of the game is silent at moments like this, the idea that football is serious about combating racism is very hard to take seriously.

(Header photo: Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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From Rory's hometown, the angst of McIlroy

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From Rory's hometown, the angst of McIlroy

Follow live coverage of day one at The Open 2024 from Royal Troon today

HOLYWOOD, Northern Ireland — About 3,000 miles from here, Rory McIlroy walked along Manhattan’s West Side five weeks ago; shoulders pushed up, head slung down, earbuds in. He strolled the High Line, a repurposed freight rail running from Gansevoort Street to 34th Street. The 1.5-mile footpath towers 30 feet over 11th Avenue, above the fray, but through the noise of America’s busiest city.

That’s where McIlroy went to get away from it all.

He needed to process the latest close call in a career coming to be defined by them. This one? Especially cruel. Pinehurst. Three bogeys in the final four holes. Those missed putts. Two feet and 11 inches on the 16th. Three feet and nine inches on the 18th. A solo runner-up finish at the U.S. Open. Again.

McIlroy wanted the blur of a big city, where everything is fast, faceless. It’s what he prefers nowadays. He walked alone, hidden under the brim of a baseball cap, then dipped into Milos, a world-class Mediterranean restaurant in Hudson Yards. He elbowed up at a bar seat, checked his phone and opened a text message from a close friend.

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That message? It asked if he’d just been walking the High Line. Apparently, McIlroy had been spotted. Word got around.

“It’s hard to get any sort of privacy these days,” he says. “But it’s nice to try to blend in as much as possible.”

Ages ago, McIlroy found solace along the narrow streets of Holywood, this small town where the butcher knows the baker, and the bartender knows the banker, and the bookmakers know the bookkeepers. They all live here, tucked between Belfast and Bangor, along the shoreline of Belfast Lough, the inlet connecting this section of Northern Ireland to the Irish Sea. A little more than 10,000 people. Solidly middle-class. Wealth around the edges. A mix of Protestant and Catholic. They’re abundantly proud to have raised generations of kids well isolated from the religious tensions that long defined the region.

As one local puts it: “A lovely little town. Everybody has grown up with everybody.”

Holywood was the early proxy used to explain Rory to the world upon his arrival in 2008 as a potential superstar. Sportswriters and broadcasters traveled here like pilgrims. More and more from his breakout U.S. Open win in 2011 to his thunderclap in 2014 — winning his third and fourth majors in succession at age 25.

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The visitors drove rental cars down High Street. They squeezed into parking spaces and popped into one business after another. Holywood’s main strip is dotted by coffee shops, cafes and retail shops. You can’t read a story from back then without a mention of Skinners Bakery, where owner Valerie Baker designed biscuits and buns with Young Rory’s face. In 2014, after McIlroy’s win at the PGA Championship, she told the Belfast Telegraph: “It’s become something of a tradition now. This is the fourth time we’ve baked our special Rory biscuits. They always sell out.”

Next door to Skinners is Orrs Butchers. That’s where writers found Stephen Moore. He’d say how much the town was buzzing. How Rory put little Holywood on the map. How he was going to win the next major, and then the next one after that.

Inevitably, the visitors would head up the hill, deeper into town, to Holywood Golf Club. Where Rory learned the game. Where local liquor laws were winked at as family and friends watched final rounds of major tournaments long after last call. Where television cameras broadcast them cheering their boy, Rory. He would win, return to town with a trophy, and everyone would be together again.

Today, things are different, but Holywood remains.


It’s a Friday afternoon and Paul the barman is looking for the key again.

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Two Americans are coming off the 18th hole and want their turn. Rory’s Corner, a mini custom-built McIlroy museum in the middle of Holywood GC’s clubhouse, is open to the public. The walls are covered. Pictures of a 15-year-old with big freckles and bigger hair. Framed newspapers of long ago wins. Plaques. Memorabilia.

So for the umpteenth time today, the trophy case is opened, and replicas of the Claret Jug and Wanamaker Trophy are handed over. Big smiles. Pictures snapped.

Later, two Aussies will come in to do the same. Paul will fetch the keys, take them to the trophy case, pop it open again.

Shortly after that, near sunset, a sightseeing bus from a docked cruise ship will climb the hills of Holywood, turn down Demesne Road, and pull onto Nun’s Walk, the tiny road leading up to the clubhouse. The Home of Rory McIlroy is a stop on the tour.

“All day, every day, seven days a week,” says Stephen Tullin, president of Holywood Golf Club.

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You can make a reasonable case no club is so associated with a player it produced as Holywood is with Rory. Arnold Palmer and Latrobe Country Club? Jack Nicklaus and Scioto? It’s a short list.

“I don’t know what course Tiger Woods was involved with as a lad,” says Tony Denvir, a Holywood GC member. “But everyone knows Rory McIlroy was, and is, a member of Holywood Golf Club.”

The reason, it seems, is the fairy tale, one told so many times. Born in 1989 to Gerry and Rosie McIlroy, Rory McIlroy was immediately a prodigy. His parents worked multiple jobs, trading night and day shifts, assuring the boy every opportunity. Gerry, a fine player in Belfast’s amateur golf leagues, taught his son the game and let him loose at Holywood. He was so good, so soon, the club made him a member at age 7. Rory left high school at 16 to focus on a game that grew larger than life. The result was a young lad coming from a working man’s club to conquer the world.

“Nobody was ready for what happened,” says Barry Dobbin.

Now 78, Dobbin still seems to be wrapping his head around it all. A lifetime ago, he owned a timber-frame housing kit company and employed Gerry as an insulation installer. He, Gerry, and Gerry’s father, Jimmy (Rory’s grandfather), played golf together. Dobbin drove Gerry and Rosie to their 1988 wedding, then to the reception at Pips International, the best-known nightclub in Belfast.

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He remembers Rory as a baby.

And he remembers that baby suddenly becoming the biggest story in the golfing world.

“It all happened so quickly,” Dobbin says. “And suddenly we were this magic place.”

The waves of tourists that come through today want exactly that. A piece of magic. Americans, Canadians, Swiss, French, Japanese. They fork over greens fees to play what amounts to a simple, short, 120-year-old parkland course. They ask to hear all the stories. They take pictures of the sign in front of Rory’s reserved parking spot.

On this day, a nondescript sedan is parked there.

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“Oh, that’s Paul’s,” Denvir says.


The sound on the 18th green at Pinehurst last month was guttural. A gasping, shrieking, sighing, moaning anguish. The thousands of fans surrounding the final hole of the 2024 U.S. Open couldn’t believe McIlroy missed that putt. At the same time, they absolutely could believe it. They’ve seen it before. That’s how a major tournament winless streak goes from 36 to 37.

In Holywood? All was quiet that night.

“Back in the day, Rory in contention at a U.S. Open, this place would’ve been jam-packed for that,” Denvir says. “Bar would’ve been full. Overflow seating in the other room. Would’ve been fantastic craic.”

That was back when the bar stayed open late and the cameras came out. BBC, Sky Sports. Maybe ESPN. Photographers snapping away.

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“That’s died off a wee bit,” Denvir says.

Instead, everyone watched the misadventures of Pinehurst from home.

Blank faces in front of the flickering screens.

“Pinehurst was … ” Denvir says, lifting his hands and dropping them. “You really could tell that the wee lad just wanted to stand there and cry. He was obviously heartbroken. It was so hard to watch.”

Sitting on a deck perched over Holywood’s 18th green, Denvir looks over at Tullin, who has known McIlroy’s family for 50-some-odd years. Tullin remembers watching Rory play junior competitions when the bag was taller than the boy, when he’d step to the tee and the whispers would begin. “Who’s this now? Oh, that’s Rory McIlroy.”

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“We were heartbroken as well, yeah?” Tullin says, looking back at Denvir.

“Absolutely. Just stunned,” Denvir says, pausing, thinking, “Ten years now, since he’s won a major? Ten. Just incredible.”

“It is incredible.”

“2014, yeah? That’s just…“

“Crazy, isn’t it?”

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These are the conversations that have replaced the parties at Holywood Golf Club. The lover’s lament, so to speak. It’s impossible to change the topic when there’s only one topic. So pints are poured and Rory is discussed. The keening of near-misses or summoning of old times. Eventually, inevitably, his face pops up on the TV screen and everyone stops.

The whole town is subscribed.


“Hi, I’m wondering if Stephen Moore is here?”

“Ah, s—,” the old man says, eyes pressed closed, hands atop the cold metal of a butcher’s display, “what’ve I done now?”

Meet the most popular man in Holywood. Moore was born here in 1965, took a job at Orrs at age 15, bought the shop years later, continued working, sold it a few years ago, and now shows up each Saturday, pulling on an apron, mainly so he can still see everyone, and so they can see him. Moore can not go more than two minutes without being interru…

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“Hi, Tommy!” he hollers.
“Stephen!”
“You good?”
“I’m fine.”
“Good man.”

Moore was interviewed by the likes of ESPN and the Washington Post back in 2011, when Rory was on the rocket and the Open Championship was on its way to Royal Portrush, only 60 miles from Holywood.

“It was a phenomenon,” he remembers.

Moore went to school with Brian McIlroy, the youngest of Rory’s uncles, and worked at Orrs alongside Eva McIlroy, Rory’s grandmother. She drove a Volkswagen Beetle, but couldn’t park it. So she’d arrive at work, leave the VW in the middle of the street, and tell Young Stephen to go park it. Later, Moore’s sister married Colm McIlroy, another of Rory’s uncles.

Today, all the McIlroys still live in Holywood. Colm runs a pressure-washing business and plays golf out of HGC. Gerry and Rosie split time between Northern Ireland and the United States. When they’re in town, Gerry can be found each morning on the 4-mile stretch of beach from Seahill to Holywood. He likes to walk alone, Moore says.

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“Down to earth, solid people,” he adds, waving to a passerby.

“Heyyy, Sam.”
“Hello, Stephen!”
“You get that thing sorted?”
“I did, I did.”
“Good, good. Cheers.”

Moore remembers both childhood Rory bouncing down High Street as a kid and, only a few years later, a freshly famous Rory drawing crowds and newspaper photographers when stopping for coffee. He couldn’t imagine such attention.

“Hi, Stephen!” a passing woman says.
“Hi, Annie! Go sit in your garden and enjoy this weather, would ya!”

Moore watched the U.S. Open at his house. A few mates. A few beers. They thought it was over as Rory teed off on 15. The boys damn near began celebrating.

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“Two silly putts,” he says. “Everyone was heartbroken.”

It’s odd, like storms in one sea changing the currents upon another shore. Even though he’s not there — and hasn’t been here in at least a year or two — as Rory goes, so goes the Holywood. There’s the buildup to each major, that this will be the one. Then the letdown. McIlroy has 11 top-five finishes in the 37 majors since his last win, including three second-place finishes in the last three years. It didn’t seem like anything could be more wrenching than the near-miss at St. Andrews in 2022, but Pinehurst was somehow worse.

So here sits Holywood, waiting for time to change.

“I think it’d just be a relief, to tell you the truth — to just see ‘em get it off his back,” Moore says. “I think he’s just trying too hard sometimes. Who can blame ’em? He’s won loads of championships, but this major thing is just following him around.”


At The Maypole, a pub in Holywood’s town center, you’ll find things can begin to feel odd after 10 or 15 minutes. Then it hits you — the bar is full, but also quiet. Everyone is talking, but not shouting. No music is playing. No TV is on. A sign by the door reads: “In the interest of good conversation and serious drinking, please refrain from using mobile phones.”

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This place is a free competition of ideas, and when it comes to Rory, everyone has an opinion.

One local philosopher, eyebrows raised toward the ceiling, slows his brogue to say McIlroy needs to stop speaking to the media and only worry about playing golf.

Others have their own varying thoughts, namely, the man is worth multiple hundreds of millions, so, yeah, it’s tough to feel too bad. “Poor Rory?” one said. “I don’t think so.”

But even those cynics want to see McIlroy win again, if only for a change of conversation.

Plenty in town are suspicious of an out-of-towner. Antennae are up, assuming questions about golf will lead to questions about Rory’s personal life, one month after he withdrew his petition to divorce wife Erica Stoll after a seven-year marriage. Seeing a notebook, plenty in Holywood kindly scooted away.

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The instinct, of course, is to protect.

He is theirs, not ours.


Rory McIlroy’s major tournament winless streak extended to 37 at the 2024 U.S. Open.  (Luke Walker / Getty Images)

Walking off the 18th green at Royal Troon on Monday, 21-year-old Tom McKibbin folded his arms, thinking about home. He grew up in Newtownabbey, across the Belfast Lough, about 12 miles from Holywood. Growing up, he spent his days playing on Rory’s old course, training in facilities installed by Rory and, after developing into an elite talent, answering constant questions about being The Next Rory.

McKibbin turned professional in April 2021 at age 18, just as Rory did. This year, he won the European Open in Germany — his first tournament championship on the DP World Tour. Cameras returned to Holywood to capture members’ reactions.

This week, McKibbin is appearing in his first Open Championship. He says he feels comfortable. A top-40 finish in last month’s U.S. Open — his first career major — was reassuring. Plus, he’s getting older and is out on his own more. While McKibbin lives at home with his parents in the summer, he now spends part of the calendar in Dubai and is eying an eventual move to the States — “hopefully someday soon.”

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On a recent return trip home, he got a glimpse of how such success changes things.

“Suddenly a lot more people know you at home,” McKibbin says. “I guess that’s sort of what you sign up for.”

McKibbin is a product of what McIlroy means to Holywood. There’s been charitable work — both seen and unseen. There’s been loads of money made off his draw to the town. According to those at the club, he helped keep the place afloat during COVID-19 and single-handedly put €800,000 into clubhouse renovations. He pumped financing into an expanded junior program, thinking that, if every kid in the area wants to be Rory McIlroy, they should be able to practice where he played.

Part of the clubhouse renovations Rory paid for included the installation of a modern gym, one for him to use when in town, whenever he visits the massive property he owns. Though it’s been awhile, he’s been known to show up at the club in shorts and T-shirt, wearing earbuds, to get in a workout. “He’s totally normal when he’s here,” Tullin says. “Like he just wants to be normal.”

But that’s the hard part. The longer he’s gone, the harder it is to be normal.

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“When you go home seldomly, it’s almost like you’re more of a novelty,” McIlroy said last week. “It’s sort of counterintuitive.”

Perhaps there needs to be a reason for a proper reunion.

And perhaps this could be it.

Stephen Moore says he played a round at Holywood with Colm McIlroy the day after the U.S. Open. The two smacked shots and recounted that impossible ending at Pinehurst. According to Stephen, Colm decided to fire off a text message to Rory. Something like, “Well, nephew, get ‘em the next time.”

The phone dinged back. Rory replied that the loss only made him more determined to win at Troon.

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Wouldn’t that be something? After all this time? As of now, the plan is for the bar at Holywood Golf Club to stay open on Sunday. Maybe this is the one.

(Illustration: Dan Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Brian Lawless /PA Images, Luke Walker, Saype / Belfast Photo Festival)

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How Angel City became 'the most valuable women’s sports team in the world'

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How Angel City became 'the most valuable women’s sports team in the world'

On Wednesday, Angel City FC became “the most valuable women’s sports team in the world” after the club entered into a definitive agreement for Willow Bay and Bob Iger to become the new controlling owners.

The team’s board of directors unanimously approved the sale via a vote, but it still must be approved by the NWSL, the sport’s top women’s league in the United States. The sale is expected to close in the next 30 to 60 days.

Bay, dean of the Los Angeles-based USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company, have acquired the controlling stake of the club at a total valuation of $250million (£192m), and have committed to an additional $50m in investment. Bay will serve as the club’s primary representative on the NWSL board of governors and also serve on and control Angel City’s board.

“We are so excited to be here,” Bay told The Athletic before the announcement. “I keep thinking how historic this moment is — historic in sports and in women’s sports. What we’re seeing now is breathtaking, and it’s only the beginning of the ascent, and that’s for women’s sports but particularly for this team.”

The dollar figures attached to the sale will make history.

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According to Angel City’s official press release, the $250million enterprise valuation makes it “the most valuable women’s sports team in the world”. While there’s no official list, a $250m valuation outstrips the most valuable team in women’s basketball’s WNBA (the Las Vegas Aces at $140m, per Sportico, earlier this year) and the Women’s Super League in England (Chelsea has explored the sale of a minority stake in its women’s team with a total valuation around $200m).

Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman of the United States, recently visited Angel City’s practice facility to highlight the efforts of Kamala Harris, the U.S. vice president, to promote gender equality. He called the sale a “great statement” for the league.

“The fact that people like Bob Iger and Willow Bay are potentially investing in that team is a great statement about the health of the league and the prospects going forward, especially with the media,” Emhoff told The Athletic on Tuesday during the Olympics send-off game for the U.S. women’s national team.

Originally founded by actor Natalie Portman and entrepreneurs Kara Nortman and Julie Uhrman, the expansion team was the unexpected result of connections between Portman, Nortman and the USWNT players’ association via Time’s Up. The three brought on businessman Alexis Ohanian as the club’s largest shareholder and controlling owner before the team’s launch in 2020. Despite that title, Ohanian did not actually control the Angel City board, writing on social media that it was “one of many hard lessons (he) learned as a first-time sports team owner”.

The club also added dozens of smaller investors, among them former USWNT players, including Abby Wambach, Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy and Lauren Holiday, as well as celebrities and other famous athletes, such as Billie Jean King, Jennifer Garner and Uzo Aduba.

Angel City has largely struggled on the field since starting play in 2022 — though they did make the 2023 NWSL playoffs before being knocked out in the first round — but the team has been a runaway success from a business perspective.

Wednesday’s $250million valuation is a massive step up from last year’s Sportico figures, which Angel City led at $180m, and the Los Angeles club laps the rest of the NWSL in revenue. It makes more than $30m a year, about double that of the next highest, fellow Californians San Diego Wave.

This year, Angel City’s four primary owners voted to hire New York investment bank Moelis & Company to find a new controlling owner, with that decision becoming public in March after reports of squabbling among the board. Four months later, the board collectively announced the club’s sale to Bay and Iger, but individual founding owners were not made available to the media.

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“Willow and Bob bring unparalleled operational experience, expertise and passion to Angel City and the NWSL,” the club statement begins.

“They are the right partners to lead us into this new era — they are committed to strengthening Angel City’s position as a preeminent organization and brand in women’s sports and to championing the team’s broader mission, including the advancement of equity for athletes and women-founded businesses.

“With their leadership, we will continue to harness the industry’s momentum and build on Angel City’s strong foundation of fan and community support.”

Portman, Uhrman, Ohanian and another early investor and board member, Gillian Berry, will continue their roles on the board once the sale is completed. But Bay will soon be at the head of the table, along with Iger, hoping to advance the existing Angel City mission. Bay believes that the work ahead must be done as part of a local community, even as Angel City’s reach extends globally.

“We’re committed to doing whatever it requires — leveraging expertise, capital and our networks to continue building and elevating this franchise on and off the pitch,” Bay said on Tuesday

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Natalie Portman, Julie Uhrman and Kara Nortman in 2023 (Allison Zaucha/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

When Angel City unveiled itself as a new NWSL expansion team four years ago, no one could have predicted that it would be up for a $250million sale, even with all the excitement of Hollywood connections, USWNT star power, and the anticipation for the return of women’s professional soccer to Los Angeles for the first time since 2010.

The team brought in forward Christen Press as their first signing, then pulled out all the stops for their home opener in May 2022, with a sold-out crowd of 22,000 watching them eke out a win over North Carolina Courage.

“What you see here (with Angel City) is a combination of so many people getting together and going, ‘No. It can be different. It can be this, don’t do that’. We can make this whatever we want,” Wambach said before that 2-1 victory.

That’s largely been the story of Angel City’s approach: leverage the knowledge and experiences of Wambach, Hamm and the rest across various former leagues — WUSA, WPS, even the early days of the NWSL — then combine it with the ambition of new investors who are bound by the historical fear of a league folding too soon. For the most part, it has worked — though not perfectly.

Chief among the criticisms of Angel City has been that the club has been more interested in building a brand than an actual soccer team. While most of the team’s early language has been scrubbed from its website, the business-centric theme is still present in the page description for its online store: “Angel City is not just another football club. We’re a brand on a mission to make a difference in this world. We’re born of the streets of Los Angeles and stand side-by-side with our community.”

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Angel City FC

Angel City’s Claire Emslie, left, celebrates her goal against NJ/NY Gotham in 2022 (Ira L Black – Corbis/Getty Images)

Since March, however, the team has been followed by reports of infighting on its board as it decided to find a new controlling owner.

The Los Angeles Times reported Ohanian was unhappy over the team’s spending. This week, The Wall Street Journal went in-depth on power struggles within Angel City’s leadership, primarily between Ohanian and Uhrman. According to that report, internal documents show team officials complained about Uhrman’s “financial and personnel management”, with Ohanian cited as having concerns over her spending, the hiring of her sister as a team executive, and her temperament.

The Wall Street Journal also reported there is disagreement over Uhrman continuing as the team’s president. That decision would fall to Bay as the new controlling owner, with Uhrman herself mentioning that in the Journal’s story. However, Wednesday’s confirmation that Uhrman (and Ohanian) will remain on the board following the sale’s closure shows she will still have some role with the team moving forward.

Still, there was always going to be incredible interest in the club’s controlling stake thanks to the growth of Angel City, the NWSL and women’s sports as a whole.

Angel City had the NWSL’s highest attendance in 2022, was barely off San Diego Wave’s pace the following year, and leads the league again in 2024. According to the club, they also top the league in season ticket membership and sponsorship revenue.

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“We’re going to be the first women’s team to have a billion-dollar valuation in five years,” Uhrman told The Athletic last year. “There’s no better investment today than women’s sports.”

On the league front, when Angel City was still building its ownership group in 2019, team valuations had not yet exploded. In December of that year, OL Groupe bought out Seattle Reign for just $3.5million. Last month, when a group led by Seattle Sounders of MLS and investment firm Carlyle finalized its purchase of the Reign from OL Groupe, it was for $58m. Just before the Angel City news broke in March about the search for a new controlling owner, San Diego Wave sold for $120m.

Valuations can’t be viewed in a vacuum, however, with media rights, facilities, attendance and other metrics weighing in. The NWSL has enjoyed good news on those fronts, too, whether it’s the purpose-built stadium in Kansas City, last year’s media-rights deals, or increases in attendance and engagement figures in 2024.

Women’s sports, in general, are having an extended moment.

Global financial company Deloitte had to revise its initial predictions on women’s sports revenue, predicting that 2024 would be the year that it would surpass $1 billion. North America is expected to account for 52 percent of that revenue, with soccer’s revenue forecast figure ($555m) the highest among all sports.

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It is not surprising that there were interested bidders, though a representative of Bay’s declined to comment on other bids or the bidding process itself. Marc Lasry, former owner of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks and CEO of Avenue Capital Group, as well as Avram Glazer, part owner of the Premier League’s Manchester United and the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, were linked as potential bidders, with sources confirming to The Athletic this month that Glazer had pursued Angel City’s controlling interest.

The Bay-Iger bid emerged as the favorite this month, with the deal already close to completion.

It is easy to assume that Angel City — a product of the connections formed between women — would want a woman as its controlling owner, they could do one step better: someone who had been a fan since day one.


“The team has been on our radar since its inception,” Bay said, calling herself and Iger, her husband, members of the Angel City community — but she also knew two of the founding investors, Uhrman and Nortman, so she took particular interest in their new project. Bay and Iger have attended games, but Bay has gone further and included Angel City in her role as a professor at the University of Southern California.

“I bring students as part of my sports class to visit Angel City, to learn about the trajectory of the team and its development,” she said, adding she has also hosted the team’s co-founders on campus. “It’s important to offer a platform to this team, part of this community, and these women who have helped create it.”

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Bay, who has a lengthy media and journalism resume that spans Huffington Post, Good Morning America, Moneyline, the Today Show and NBA Inside Stuff, loves a narrative.

“This is a great business story, a great sports story, a great community story, and certainly a great story about driving equity with a purpose-driven brand,” she said. “So for all those reasons, I’ve followed this team since the beginning.”

Asked about changing her mindset from fan to owner, Bay didn’t want to get into too many specifics about the club’s new day-to-day. To her, there is time ahead to dig into priorities, strategic planning and the decisions that have to be made. The sale is a month or two from being finalized, and she’s still embracing the moment to celebrate. Bay is in big-picture mode, not the nitty-gritty logistics.

Bob Iger and Willow Bay

Bob Iger and Willow Bay at the Academy Awards in March (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

That said, the purchase of Angel City has repercussions beyond just the club. Bay will be one of 15 (eventually 16, once the next expansion team is chosen) governors who can help shape the league’s future.

“There have never been limits for this team,” Bay said. “That also applies to the NWSL, with this new infusion of energy, capital resources, and incredible people joining this ownership group. There are certainly no limits to what we can expect from these athletes.”

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One of those athletes, Press, addressed the player side of the sale, acknowledging that the team does have “a lot of things that they need to get right”. The deal — plus that extra $50million of investment — means a lot of money is about to flow in.

“It allows the club to continue to professionalize. Angel City recognizes that they have a lot of room to grow on that end,” Press told The Athletic this month.

Angel City's Christen Press

Angel City’s Christen Press in 2022 (Katelyn Mulcahy/Getty Images)

While Bay promised the specifics of priorities would come later, she did say that facilities are absolutely on the list, “particularly with player development and player support”.

That’s not new information. The Bay-Iger group’s pitch deck, acquired by news website Semafor, shows that the group wants to “improve team performance, player support and retention”, which does include a training facility — but Bay and Iger also offer their expertise on media, content creation, and managing brands.

A pitch deck is one thing, reality can be another. Bay, unsurprisingly, said the first couple of months once the sale closes will be filled with a lot of listening.

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“It’s premature to even speculate about where we land first and what we do first, but we’re committed to listening, understanding where the opportunities are, then making decisions about how to prioritize resources,” she said. Player support and development across the board, including players, technical staff and front office staff, are areas they have already circled.

As of Wednesday, they’re one step closer to the real work ahead.

(Top photo: Angel City in recent action against visitors San Diego Wave; Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

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