It’s not just what Manchester City have won … but what others have lost

Players and fans can accept losing, although it is different if one side is not playing by the rules

Watford’s players sat silent, disconsolate in the Wembley changing room. The 2019 FA Cup final was “their moment”, as the team’s long-serving captain, Troy Deeney, had put it. Like most of his team-mates, Deeney had never won a major honour. The club had not graced the final for 35 years.

Winning was unlikely, of course — “massive underdogs,” Deeney had called his team — given that Manchester City, the repeat Premier League champions, stood in the way. But then the willing suspension of disbelief is the FA Cup’s calling card. Watford’s official slogan for the game was “Imagine If”. The whole town had been decked out in the team’s yellow and black. The final was portrayed as the apex of Deeney’s personal redemption arc.

And then reality bit. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City tore Watford to shreds. A two-goal lead at halftime turned into a 6-0 rout by the end, the heaviest defeat in the final in more than a century. Deeney led his team to collect their silver medals, and then into a hushed, forlorn changing room. “There’s nothing much for anyone to say,” said striker Andre Gray.

The statement surreptitiously uploaded to the Premier League’s website on Monday morning — the one confirming that the most popular sports league on the planet had charged its serial champion with more than 100 rules breaches, spread over the length of its meteoric rise from self-identifying also-ran to one of the world’s richest, most powerful clubs — read a little like a list of artificial colourings and preservatives.


Season by season, the statement detailed each of City’s alleged transgressions: rules B.13, C.71, C.72, C.75 (amended to C.79) and C.80 for the year 2009-10; B.13, C.78, C.79, C.86 and C.87 for the next campaign, and so on.

The doom scroll of letters and numbers, the product of four years of painstaking investigation and interminable legal wrangling between the Premier League and one of its shareholders, ran and ran, adding up to what is almost certainly the greatest scandal to have hit the Premier League in the 31 years of its existence.

The violations, after all, are serious. City stand accused of inflating the value of sponsorship deals so they could meet the league’s cost control measures; of failing to provide financial information “that gives a true and fair view of the club’s financial position”; of not disclosing contractual payments to managers and players; of failing to co-operate with the investigation itself.

And so, too, are the potential consequences. The club, needless to say, “robustly” deny any wrongdoing, and remain bullishly confident that it will be able to clear its name when given a chance to present what City called the “irrefutable” evidence in its defence to an independent panel in the months and, most likely, years to come.

If — and it is if, at this stage — Manchester City is found guilty, though, then the punishments can begin: The panel, according to the league’s statutes, has free rein to issue whatever penalty it sees fit. Domestic precedent ranges from heavy fines to points deductions. More severe sanctions, such as stripping City of their titles and even expelling the club from the league, are at least theoretically possible.

It would not, in that case, be merely City that suffered. So, too, would the Premier League. Having to place an asterisk next to more than a decade of its proudly melodramatic history — including some of its most iconic moments — would bring with it considerable blowback for the competition itself.

And yet to dress the Premier League’s case in those terms — to cast it as a battle for power between two bodies, to present it as a bellwether for greater regulation, to frame it as a political event — is to miss the point.

It is easy to lose sight of it, amid the arcane legalese and the stark list of rules and provisions and clauses that City is accused of breaking, but at the heart of the allegations made by the Premier League is a human cost.

Sports only work if there is a common set of rules. It is possible, of course, to disagree with those rules, to feel that they are arbitrary or antiquated or written by a self-interested elite to protect their own positions, the view that City (among others) have taken of soccer’s attempts at cost control. And in some cases, that dissidence is more than legitimate.

But the idea that when tyranny is law, revolution is duty does not hold, not in sports. It is not just that the integrity of the whole activity rests on a common acceptance of the rules — the assumption that everyone, be they teams or athletes, are competing under the same conditions — it is that the very meaning rests on it. The rules give the exercise purpose.

If it is found that City were disregarding those rules, no matter how unjust the club might consider them to be, then the real damage — rather than reputational — has been to the teams they have faced along the way.

Sympathy might, perhaps, be in short supply from Manchester United and Liverpool, the two clubs who have narrowly lost Premier League titles to City in the last decade or so. They are, after all, the most successful clubs in English history, able to console themselves with myriad different glories.

But they would not be the only ones to have lost out. Stoke City lost the FA Cup final to Manchester City in 2011. It was Stoke’s first major final since 1972. Three years later, City beat Sunderland to the League Cup. A few years after that, Watford went to Wembley in 2019 and were “blown away”, as Andre Gray put it.

Manchester City deserved to win all of those games, of course. On each occasion, they were much the better team. Their opponents accepted their fate with good grace. They did not quibble with the result. “We know how far ahead of us they are,” said Gray, even as his team-mates were coming to terms with their humiliation in the sanctuary of the changing room.

That City was better is not in question. What is at stake, instead, is whether they were in a position to reach all of those finals, to win all of those trophies, while operating under the same rules and restrictions as everyone else. If they were not, then there is no punishment, no matter how harsh, that restores what has been lost. — New York Times