I’m writing a small piece in response to the cataclysmic events of last week. A decision that shook the footballing world to its very core. Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but it was certainly a shocking moment. Before my case begins as to why it was deeply unjust, it is important to state that I am a Manchester City fan, so there is undoubtedly bias in my perspective, certainly supporting the notion that I am bitter. However, I have taken a few days to think of my response to the situation, rather than reacting impulsively in a tirade of exasperation. So, before one doubles over in fits of laughter at the sullen City fan, just have a brief think of what the harsh punishment of the club suggests; and maybe, just maybe, I can make you re-think your view.
It is no secret that Manchester City and UEFA have a mutual dislike of one another. If anyone has watched us play in a Champions League game in the past 6 or so years, you will have noticed that many fans openly boo the Champions League anthem. Ever wondered why? Well, there is a view held by many fans, including myself, that there is a clique within the UEFA governing body that conspire to work against us. “But why?” you ask in response. To keep us out of “the club”, of course. With this term, I mean the established elite of Europe – Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and, who could forget, Liverpool. City have threatened to join this elite group over the past 5 or so years, especially since the arrival of Pep Guardiola, one of the most respected managers on the planet. However, the Champions League still eludes the club, which is a pre-requisite for European royalty. Nonetheless, his City side are unquestionably one of the most feared on the continent, and UEFA clearly do not like that.
City fans have every right to feel aggrieved at the hands of UEFA. So before delving into the matter at hand, namely Financial Fair play (FFP), let us first observe this long-standing animosity, with several prominent examples of abhorrent behaviour from UEFA. The feud started in the 2011/2012 season, during a Europa League game against Porto. Porto fans racially abused City striker Mario Balotelli and received a meagre €20,000 fine. In contrast, just one month after this occurred, City played Sporting Lisbon, Porto’s arch-nemesis. The City players were approximately 30 seconds late in coming out on to the pitch for the second half, and were fined €30,000 for doing so. So just to reiterate, City were fined more for walking out late on to the pitch than Porto were for racist chanting at a City player. It was nothing short of absurd.
However, the issue compounded in 2014 when City played CSKA Moscow in a Champions League game. In short, CSKA were ordered to play behind closed doors as punishment for a series of offences caused by their fans, including racist chanting. For some reason, this ban extended to City fans who had already bought tickets and arranged travel, even though there was no reason for City fans to be punished. And this is the worst part… around 600 CSKA fans were allowed into the stadium! These examples serve to highlight how City fans’ anger towards UEFA is fairly justified.
Furthermore, it is imperative to mention the corrupt foundations upon which UEFA, and FFP, are built, when analysing a case this far-reaching. Michel Platini was the head of UEFA from 2007-2015 and upon his appointment, he was a well-respected man in the field of football. He won the Ballon D’or three times in a row between 1983-85, a quite remarkable achievement, as well as being head coach of the French national team. He became the first former player to be elected as president of UEFA, and one would hope that a former player would better understand the intricacies of the game, further improving the way the organisation was run. Wrong. Platini was involved in the corruption scandal that swept through the world of football, regarding the decision to award the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Whilst these allegations were made against FIFA, Platini was said to have received a payment of around £1.6 million and was brought in for interrogation by investigators. Whilst he was never formally charged, Platini was banned from football-related activities for 4 years. Dishonourable, scandalous… you name it.
Now, why am I mentioning this? Well, Platini was the main instigator of FFP, which was established in 2009 under his presidency. Essentially, FFP aims to prevent clubs that qualify for European competitions from spending “beyond their means”, stamping out what Platini called “financial doping” within football. This is a fancy term that alludes to a situation in which the owner of a sports club invests his or her own personal wealth into securing highly-talented players to better their chances of success, rather than relying on the revenue the franchise is able to generate for itself. That in itself seems fair, and this is where I do believe City are in murky waters, but more on that later.
The part that really gets under my skin is that, in Platini’s words, the “big spending of some clubs is ruining the game”. He argued that the level of debt carried by many clubs is unsustainable, which is certainly true in some cases. But does this apply to City?
City are a well-run club. When Sheikh Mansour bought the club, there was an expectation that City would throw money around at will, inflating prices in the transfer market. Yet, our transfer business over the past 10 years has been mightily successful, bar the odd bust (yes, Mangala I am talking about you). We also act very cautiously in not inflating a player’s value in the market, as shown during the Virgil Van Dijk transfer saga, where we refused to pay over our £60 million valuation. Of course, this turned out to be a regrettable decision, but it showed we have principles at least (I do not take much solace from this). Not only has Mansour invested in the first-team squad, he has endeavoured to build the club from the bottom-up. We have state-of-the-art facilities, a world-class youth setup and a quite brilliant women’s team. Mansour’s project has always had a long-term outlook, with sustainability its bedrock.
Moreover, rather than “ruining the game”, as Platini stated with ignorance, I would argue that City’s meteoric rise has vastly improved the Premier League. The league has become more competitive, rather than dominated by the same two sides each year. This is the case in many other top leagues in Europe, such as La Liga and Serie A, where the past decade has been dominated by one or two elite clubs. This, I would argue, ruins the game. However, vis-à-vis the Premier League, this is far from the case. City have won 4 league titles since 2011, with Chelsea winning 2, Leicester and United one apiece, and Liverpool undoubtedly winning this season. This multiplicity of winners is a positive development for the game we love. Now, if City won every year like Juventus or PSG, I would also argue that we were ruining the game. The simple fact is, we play beautiful football and have improved the league. And the reason we are disliked by some portions of football’s fanbase is because of two reasons: firstly, they wish they had been bought by an owner who had deep pockets of wealth, but who also made sure the club was well-run; and secondly, we have demolished the balance of power in the Premier League. Whilst not connected to the FFP matter, the bias against City is also evident in the fact that no City player has won Premier League Player of the Year since 2011. No Sergio, no KdB, no Sterling, no Yaya – all of whom have had outstanding individual campaigns in this time period.
As aforementioned, I have no doubt that City probably did something outside of FFP rules, possibly inflating the figures of sponsorship money in their books. Yet, I am also convinced that if City are at fault, then so are many other clubs. It’s important that we still observe the numbers. Man City brought in a record £535.2m last season, the club’s 2018-19 annual report says, recording a profit of £10.1m. This was City’s 11th successive year of revenue growth, closing the gap on local rivals Manchester United, the Premier League’s richest club. It is noteworthy that United are reportedly £660 million in debt at present, with no song or dance being made of this. Yes, I understand United generate gargantuan revenue, and it is by no means ‘bad debt’; but for no questions to be raised at all ironically raises questions in itself. City also generate huge revenue and both clubs have a sustainable foundation. The figures for City are projected to rise again next year, given City qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League. Furthermore, payments from a £45m-a-year Puma kit deal will also start to take effect, on top of various sponsorship deals around the world, such as sleeve-sponsor Nexen tyres estimated to be worth £10m-a-year. City are expanding globally year-upon-year, with the colossal investment leading to a more sustainable, long-term approach.
Yet, for breaching FFP, City will seemingly be punished heavily. FFP that supposedly does not allow massive investment into a club. Yet, the same FFP that witnessed more relaxed rules for new ownership when AC Milan were bought by Chinese investors in 2016. Milan are part of the traditional European elite, so it is no surprise that UEFA wanted to welcome them back into “the club” after a brief hiatus. Of course, these new rules did not apply City, or PSG for that matter, because their respective owners had already invested. This infuriates me just as much, as the supposedly strident standpoint that UEFA take can be altered when they feel like it. This is nothing short of a farce.
Finally, I would like to examine PSG, a club that displays many similarities to City. Since 2011, they have been owned by the State of Qatar, through its shareholding organisation Qatar Sports Investment (QSI). As of 2019, Forbes ranked them as the 11th most valuable football club in the world, worth approximately £700 million. In the same study, City were ranked as the 5th most valuable football club, with its estimated value double that of PSG.
Now, this is where it gets rather juicy. As many people reading this will know, PSG spend vast swathes of money, collectively spending £350 million on two players: Mbappe and Neymar. They are both world class superstars, yes; however, the astronomical fees PSG parted with single-handedly inflated the transfer market, meaning that clubs must now pay £80 million for slightly- above-average centre-halves. This amount of spending begs us to question why PSG have not also been punished by FFP rulings. I think this would soften the blow for City fans, knowing that we could take a stand together against the established clubs. However, having done a little bit of digging, I have figured out as to why PSG have seemingly come out unscathed thus far. Their chairman, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, is a member of the UEFA executive committee, elected by the European Club Association (ECA) to be one of its two delegates. Smart move.
Yet, it means City have been singled out to be punished by FFP rules, and I have considerable concern with the punishment laid out by UEFA. A two-year ban from UEFA club competitions is extreme, I think we can all agree on that, potentially decimating the club. City could witness a mass exodus of their top players either this summer or next, with the allure of Champions League elsewhere too enticing to resist. The club would also lose out financially, as lucrative TV deals add generously to Champions League clubs’ revenue. As a City fan, I think I would accept a one-year ban for wrong-doing, as it would probably prevent an exodus, whilst also deterring clubs from breaking FFP rules in the future. Two-years is indicative of a personal vendetta against City, not that of a reasonable sanction. Hopefully City’s appeal to the CAS will have a fruitful outcome for the club, but until then we wait… and hope that justice prevails.
To conclude, it takes time to build something meaningful. Rome was not built in a day, so the cliché goes. Without massive investment, it’s nigh on impossible for any team to achieve long-term success at the top of the game now. Sure, a team could replicate the domestic feats of Leicester in 2015/16 on occasion, but it’s consistency that differentiates the great sides and the good. Moreover, if you look at the past decade, the winners of the Champions League are no surprise. If you want to win the competition, you have to build a squad of world-class talent, which means you have to invest. This is why FFP is a sham, designed to ensure the established elite are not challenged.