When a few students and teachers at St. Luke’s School in the English Midlands called a meeting on a chilly November evening of 1876 to see if they could gather enough players for a school football team, they surely couldn’t have imagined that their club would someday be owned by a Chinese conglomerate, managed by a Portuguese coach, and led on the field by a Mexican striker.
But here we are, 145 years later, and Wolverhampton, a fading industrial powerhouse of some 260,000 people, is now an improbable venue for a cutting-edge experiment in the ongoing globalization of sport.
And I am fortunate enough to be in a frigid Molineux Stadium (first built in 1889) on another November evening (Sky TV’s “Monday Night Football” itself being a product of globalization) to watch Mexico’s Raúl Jiménez score his 50th goal as a Wolf, and his first goal at Molineux since last year’s terrifying skull-fracturing injury which nearly cost him his life. Raúl turns in a “Man of the Match” performance in Wolverhampton’s 2-1 win over Everton on the night to move Wolves into 7th place in the league table, and the sold-out crowd serenaded him throughout the game.
Already in the game’s second minute fans were belting out their sweet “Sí Señor” tribute to Raúl (“The best in the world and he comes from Mexico. Our number nine..”), a song which will be repeated at least half-a-dozen times throughout the night, with extra gusto when Raúl scores what will prove the decisive goal, a typically crafty chip over Jordan Pickford after intercepting a wayward Evertonian pass. Everything about Raúl screams commitment. He is in it.
Wearing headgear he will need to play with the rest of his career, he earnestly acknowledges the crowd’s love, waving back. And on the bench for the closing few minutes, he can’t stay seated, but avidly stands in the dugout, leaning forward, willing his teammates to close out the win. At the final whistle, Raúl jogs over enthusiastically for TV duties on the sideline, to do his “man of the match” interviews. He is still not wearing a jacket, and I wonder if he misses the warmth of his native Mexico – he is from the town of Tepeyi del Rio in the central state of Hidalgo – at this moment. I know I do, and I am wearing layers.
Earlier in the day I had a Thai lunch with Russell Jones, a Wolverhampton native who’s had a front-row seat to the transformation he is now helping to drive. As a teenager, before spending a few years playing and coaching the game in the United States, his first job was working in a sport shop the club’s 1950s legend Ron Flowers opened in the center of the city. Now Jones is the Wolverhampton Wanderers’ General Manager for Marketing and Commercial Growth – a local, lifetime supporter overseeing the club’s global outreach. In his role, he surfs the unstoppable wave that is the English Premier League, the most watched domestic sport league in the world that is fast becoming the world’s de facto “super league.”
But Wolves are hardly content to take a back seat to leaguewide marketing efforts, or to operate in the shadows of the bigger clubs in London, Manchester, and Liverpool. They are a club whose bold ingenuity and commercial ambitions belie the size of their home market. An executive with one of the more dominant English clubs told me that Wolves are one of the innovation labs of the game, trying all sorts of interesting things that a Liverpool or Manchester United couldn’t afford to do first.
Jones describes the club as a fearless organization in an industry that can often be weighed down by history, tradition, and a deference to supporters. Wolverhampton was one of the 12 founding clubs of the English Football League; it claims its first encounter with regional rival Aston Villa was the first game ever played; and the team was an early pioneer of both overseas tours and hosting “floodlit” nighttime matches against European competitors. But it is up to the Shanghai-based Fosun International conglomerate, which acquired the club in 2016 (and just this month sold a minority stake to a US investor), to ensure that past innovations don’t lead to contemporary stasis. Fosun is a big player in esports (its teams and associated players have 30 million online supporters in China) and is leveraging the “Wolves” brand and its instantly recognizable logo across all its online platforms and a fashion clothing line. Jones has even launched a record label in partnership with Warner Music, to serve up new talent to the Wolves global audience.
Mexico looms large in this Wolfdom, certainly larger than Jones ever would have expected it would when he first took the job in 2017, thanks to the Raúl Jiménez phenomenon. Wolves push out content in seven languages and now have nine times more followers on social media in Mexico than they do in the United Kingdom. “Raúl found a home here straight away, things clicked instantly between him and fans, and he is such a fantastic, well-spoken ambassador for the club,” Jones said.
He is also a tremendous ambassador for Mexican soft power. A couple of seasons back, Wolves asked Adidas to design its alternate uniform to echo the Mexican national team’s classic green jersey. The Wolves foundation, meanwhile, has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund on a campaign to save the endangered Mexican wolf, which was spearheaded by Raúl and engaged school children in Wolverhampton and Mexico. Jones visited Mexico for the WWF campaign, and when he went to a Club America match at the Aztec Stadium, he was amazed to see how many fake goods were sold outside the stadium grounds, and astonished Wolves jerseys were among them. “I know one is supposed to be annoyed, but I was flattered and excited.”
Thanks to Raúl, Wolves also connected with Sin Cara, and when the popular Mexican-American wrestler visited Molineux for a match, Jones had a Wolves-themed luchador mask Jiménez had already popularized manufactured for every fan in the stands that day. Jones says Raúl is helping Wolves expand its fan base among Latinos in the United States, reaching beyond the Premier League’s established audience of coastal elites.
Raúl was already one of the most beloved players in Wolves history when he went up for a header against Arsenal in late November of 2020 and fractured his skull in an incident that horrified the sporting world. “No one slept in Wolverhampton that night, such was our collective concern for one of our own,” Jones remembered. (Wolves are about to release a documentary about the injury, the recovery, and the relationship between club and player).
As I heard the fans serenade Raúl with “Sí Señor” as the evening match went on, it was hard not to reflect on the curious cycles of globalization and the distances sport can cover. This town prospered because of 19th century industrialization and globalization, which gave rise, as across much of England, to a demand for more formalized leisure and sporting activity in urban centers. That was the economy’s extracurricular. But now things have flipped. The football is now the thriving export – the most valuable asset in these communities whose industrial fortunes have waned.
The fact that players like Raúl are here reassures Wolverhampton fans that their community is still on the map. Still world-class, still connected to its past glory.
The debt runs both ways. Molineux and the Premier League offers Raúl a global stage to validate himself among the world’s best, playing in the most-watched league on earth, one whose global popularity is inextricably linked to the authenticity provided by the backdrops and back stories of places like Wolverhampton.
Then there is a historical debt, globalization being cyclical in its ways. The first soccer match ever played in Raúl’s hometown of Tepeji del Rio in the early 20th century is said to have been organized by a team of expat English engineers. And who knows, maybe one of them was from Wolverhampton.