On Wednesday afternoon, I and thousands of other Manchester City supporters should have been fretting about that evening’s Premier League match against West Ham. Would the French defender Aymeric Laporte be fit enough to play? Might manager Pep Guardiola give in to popular demand and select the fans’ favourite, and local lad, Phil Foden?
But rather than preoccupying ourselves with such trifles, we obsessed instead about the latest news emanating from Nyon in Switzerland, home to Uefa, the governing body of European football. A few days earlier, Uefa had announced its intention to ban City from the Champions League for two seasons after “serious breaches” of so-called financial fair play (FFP) rules.
After news of the sanction broke on Friday, City rushed out a response. The club said it was “disappointed but not surprised” by the decision. It denounced Uefa’s investigation as “prejudicial”, largely on account of its reliance on leaked emails and documents obtained by the German magazine Der Spiegel, and gave notice that it would seek an “impartial judgment” at the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Those emails, which allegedly show that City had inflated the value of sponsorship deals with undeclared funding from its owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, do not present the club in an especially flattering light.
I’d rather not have to think about this stuff, and much prefer debating the merits of inverted full-backs and high pressing to parsing the deliberations of Uefa’s Club Financial Control Body. Many of my fellow fans, however, seem entirely untroubled by the revelations and have fallen in squarely behind the senior management.
One self-styled expert on the financial and political aspects of football tweeted: “Goodbye & good riddance Uefa. See you in court. Hope you’ve got deep pockets. This is a fight to the death now.” There was reams of this stuff on supporters’ message boards and Twitter. These were the same people who, in 2018, had revealed a hitherto well-disguised familiarity with the politics of Catalan separatism when Mr Guardiola was charged by the Football Association for wearing a yellow ribbon signalling his support for that cause.
I’ve always cringed when the chant of “Sheikh Mansour, m’lord, Sheikh Mansour” goes up at City games. His acquisition of the club in 2008 certainly ushered in an era of unprecedented success, during which City have played some of the best football I have ever seen. But it seems to me a category error to suppose that supporting the “club” or the “team” entails an unblinking indifference to the entanglement of City’s on-field fortunes with Abu Dhabi’s projection of soft power.
But set aside for a moment these geopolitical ramifications, and the question of whether City really did break the rules. And consider instead the other leg of the legal strategy that the club is now likely to follow. This will seek to show that FFP is anti-competitive and entrenches the power of incumbents — clubs such as Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, which have long regarded City as an unwelcome threat to their historic dominance of the European game.
Stefan Szymanski, co-author of Soccernomics, a study of the business of football, says that “doing a City” — when a wealthy owner makes a substantial investment in a club — is good for the sport. Now, Prof Szymanski’s research reveals a close correlation between spending on players’ wages and a club’s league position. But the effect of FFP’s “break even” rule, which requires clubs to balance expenditure with revenues, is to limit the ability of owners to invest in their teams, even when they have the means to do so.
Former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger is fond of charging City, and other insurgents such as Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain, with “financial doping”. But, as Prof Szymanski points out, the analogy is inexact.
An athlete using performance-enhancing drugs tries to hide his or her subterfuge. But before the introduction of FFP, clubs like City (or oligarch-backed Chelsea, for that matter) did not conceal the income they received from their wealthy owners. It’s Uefa’s obsession with financial “sustainability” that creates a perverse incentive to do so.
Simon Chadwick, director of the Centre for the Eurasian Sport Industry in Lyon, told PA this week that the stakes in this case could not be higher. This is “transnational power vs localised governance”, he said.
It’s all a far cry from the early 1990s, when we City fans were mesmerised by a battle for control of the club that pitted Peter Swales, a local businessman who ran a chain of TV rental shops, against Francis Lee, a former player who’d made a modest fortune in the waste paper business.