February 21, 2020

As the great Kevin Pietersen once said: “It isn’t easy being me…” Yes Kev, we know how you feel. We’ve all been there from time to time. The fans, players and staff of Manchester City feel it right now. And the owners. Especially the owners. It isn’t easy being Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi, when UEFA have just traduced your club by booting them out of the Champions League, denying you a shot or two at the trophy that can truly validate your desire and ambition.

Viewed from a certain perspective — admittedly very much the perspective of the Sheikh Mansour — City have done what every other super club has done: invested in excellence, got results, done a bit of good along the way. “Were you not entertained?” he might well ask. His team is a thing of on-field grace, power and beauty that simply would not exist without him.

To conjure that from the state that Manchester City were in circa 2007, when they hadn’t won the league for 40 years and were “a sleeping giant” — that tremendous euphemism for mismanagement, misfortune and decay — is quite something, however rich you are. One man’s sports washing is another’s act of mutually beneficial regeneration.

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Though hypocrisy exists in that perspective, there is plenty on the other side, too. UEFA, for example, whose Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules have been breached by City, are not simple regulators but a commercial entity competing for sponsorship and other funds under what Manchester City’s chief executive Ferran Soriano has called “very advantageous conditions”.

And then there’s Paris St Germain, another super club. Its president Nasser Al-Khelaifi is the chairman of Qatar Sports Investments — a subsidiary of a state-controlled wealth fund (Qatar being fractious rivals of the UAE, of which Sheikh Mansour’s seat Abu Dhabi is the capital). Al-Khelaifi is also the chairman of BeIN Sports, which as a rights holder for the Premier League indirectly steers the business of Manchester City.

There’s also Juventus, owned by the Agnelli family and funded by Fiat, an arrangement similar to that of City and PSG. The club president Andrea Agnelli sits on UEFA’s executive committee and, reports The Athletic, “is said to have brought Nasser Al-Khelaifi into the fold”.

City, according to that report, have prepared a dossier on the financial practices of PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich and are ready to go full scorched earth  if they need to. Their disdain for UEFA was made plain in the email dump that has been used to establish their guilt. One from the club’s lawyer Simon Cliff read: “Khaldoon [Al Mubarak, the City chairman] said he would rather spend £30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years,” than pay any fine imposed for breaching FFP. Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian reported that Simon Cliff had joked, “one down six to go” on hearing of the death of a member of UEFA’s investigatory chamber.

Part of City’s raging hubris emanates from the email dump, as the many thousands of documents in it were hacked and leaked by this story’s Assange figure, Rui Pinto, a Portuguese national working out of his bedroom in Budapest. Pinto was extradited last March and now resides in a Lisbon prison awaiting trial.

So yeah, it isn’t easy being Manchester City, caught up in all of this and more.

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It isn’t easy being a Manchester City fan, either — a simple love of a football club has become a complex geopolitical issue. Howard Hockin wrote a blog post titled The Fatigue of Being a Manchester City Fan:

“You could set your clock to the routine. Log on, deal with human rights accusations, brunch, debate about empty seats, light lunch, argue about net spend, cup of tea, slag off a journalist, log off, watch Pointless. Rinse and repeat.”

It isn’t easy, and it doesn’t sound like much fun either.

There is injustice in sport, and there is injustice. There is the last minute goal, the dodgy decision, the lip-out putt, the lucky punch, the drugs-cheat opponent(s). Even mad old darts has its much-loathed bounce-out. It’s the run of the balls, the rub of the green, the volatile unlikeliness of it all that so often provides the magic.

In this context, injustice plays a valuable role. In others, the search for advantage is endless and ongoing and patrolled only sometimes. ‘The line’ is there to be pushed, and always has been. “Sit your opponent with the sun in his eyes,” advised the 16th century chess player Ruy Lopez. “They’ve come to watch me bat, not you umpire,” lectured Dr Grace. “It was the hand of God,” concluded Diego Maradona.

There is a certain moral clarity about the use of performance-enhancing drugs, but none when it comes to other advantages, from genetics to money. And football, above all, is unrealistic. These are businesses that compete to sign up 10-year-olds and pay out almost 60% of their turnover in wages. The FFP concept exists not to level the playing field but to save them from themselves: left alone, the mania for success has and will result in self-destruction. Football clubs are like giant, seductive fruit machines, the jackpot always one more pull away.

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When the legislation was introduced by UEFA, then-President Michel Platini said:

“Fifty per cent of clubs are losing money and this is an increasing trend. We needed to stop this downward spiral. They have spent more than they have earned in the past and haven’t paid their debts. We don’t want to kill or hurt the clubs; on the contrary, we want to help them in the market.”

You might as well tell hedge fund managers not to take risks. Michel Platini has now been banned from all “football related activity” until 2023 for corruption.

Sport is many things, but it is not egalitarian. At its best, in the arena, it can be a meritocracy. But however monotonous the successes of some, it craves its Davids and its Goliaths, one of its longest-running storylines. It needs its plucky minnows and sleeping giants to retain that sense of scale and the possibility of an upset.

Last year, Amazon Prime screened a glistening box set about Manchester City, part of its All or Nothing series. The title doesn’t appear to be ironic, but one glimpse revealed that there wouldn’t be much nothing going on. The most voyeuristic and enjoyable parts were shot in the training complex at the Etihad Campus, a part of Sportcity and home to the club’s ‘world headquarters’. The language itself tells a story.

The inside looks like a cross between a six star hotel on a fake island and something from that Don DeLillo novel about secret desert facilities in which you can live forever. The players stalk it like snow leopards, sleek organic machines programmed by the manager, Pep Guardiola, a man who gives inspirational talks to everyone from the kit man to Khaldoon Al Mubarak as he passes by. The players banter, sure, and laugh too loudly, but the whole thing is conducted in a state of hushed awe at its own existance. Like the best of all sport, there is something both pointless and moving about it.

Above all, it is the opposite of egalitarian. Perhaps it suits the new Britain in its overwhelming belief in its own excellence. Everything is against Manchester City, but then, in football, everyone is against everyone else all of the time. Clubs will never poll their fans on which centre back they should purchase, or ask for supporter approval for a Christmas Tree formation away from home. Equality as a concept is in one of its unpopular phases, and football has often mirrored that.

There is a thought that City should be stripped of their 2013-14 Premier League title, but that idea is compromised, too. The team that finished second, Liverpool, paid £1m in compensation to City for hacking into their scouting database. It’s a cliché to say you couldn’t make it up. You could make it up, quite easily. But in the case of football, you usually don’t have to.

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