Ken Early: City’s domination has been bought – and they’re paying the price
It’s time to accept that oil-funded success and mass popularity will never go well together
The strangest moment of Saturday’s FA Cup final came in the seconds after Manchester City’s sixth goal, when the camera cut from the mob of celebrating City players to Pep Guardiola, who was slumped on the bench with his head in his hands.
Pep looked less like a happy football coach watching his side make history and more like an anguished scientist whose prototype civil defence robot has just run amok at a trade show, slaughtering several bystanders. It looked as though he understood that the very scale of the victory had begun to devalue it, that City were now in the territory of negative marginal returns, that the reaction to this turkey shoot would go beyond appreciation and congratulation, towards accusation and perhaps even condemnation.
And so it proved. The Cup-winning manager’s post-match press conference is usually laudatory, but Pep’s ended with a journalist asking whether he, like his predecessor Roberto Mancini, had ever received any extra payments from City’s ownership group on top of his regular salary.
Guardiola looked about as angry as anyone has seen him since he arrived in England. “Do you know the question you’re asking me?” he hissed. “If I ever received money for another situation, right now, today? Honestly, do you think I deserve to have this type of question happen – what happened with Roberto I don’t know, the day we won the treble – if I received money from other situations? Oh my God. Are you accusing me of receiving money?”
You could say he did not dignify the question with a denial. This was not supposed to be happening. For Pep, the whole point of moving to City was to prove that he could succeed at a club that seemed to lack the advantages of the established giants. “For a man who has spent his life in clubs steeped in history, Manchester City might indeed seem an unusual choice,” writes Martí Perarnau in The Evolution, his fly-on-the-wall account of Pep’s latter period at Bayern. “Perhaps the question answers itself... [Pep] feels attracted by a club less bound by tradition and custom... he knew that he would be able to work without feeling that he was shattering long-established customs and practices.”
At Barcelona, he was carrying on a tradition of excellence inherited from Johan Cruyff; at Bayern he had to contend with club legends peering over his shoulder, commenting and criticising. At City, the history was waiting to be made and the only club legend he’d have to contend with was Noel Gallagher. “City was a blank canvas and he would be free to create as he saw fit... By creating a new brand of City football and the language that goes with it, he could begin to build his own unique legacy.”
It must therefore be frustrating to see that this new “legacy” has not won universal acclaim. Lately Pep has taken to complaining that the media in England are biased against City in favour of the traditional big clubs, Liverpool and Manchester United. When he noted in his pre-Cup final press conference that the Daily Mail website’s top story last Monday had been about Paul Pogba rowing with Manchester United fans rather than City winning the league, he was making, in more polite terms, the exact same point that an angry Man City fan shouted into the Wembley press box on Saturday: “We’ve done the domestic f**king treble, no one’s ever done it before, but you’ll all have Mo Salah on the back of the f**king papers tomorrow!”
On one level it’s obvious why media outlets might cover Manchester United and Liverpool more than City: these clubs have much larger fanbases and far more people are interested in what they’re doing. But it also needs to be acknowledged that, unlike the confrontation between Pogba and that enraged United fan, City’s story lacks the essential elements of drama. Whether they like it or not, most people see their treble as more transaction than triumph.
At Wembley, City brought on three substitutes – Kevin de Bruyne, Leroy Sané and John Stones – each of whom would have been the best player in Watford’s team. There’s no magic or mystery about why their squad is so strong. They have a net transfer spend of more than £1.2 billion over the 11 seasons since the 2008 takeover. That’s almost 50 per cent more than their closest rival over that period – the Qatar-funded PSG – and half a billion pounds more than the team in third place, Manchester United.
Football has not seen anything like this before. The closest comparison is with Chelsea after the 2003 Abramovich takeover, but their spending was nowhere near as sustained or comprehensive. Yes, in the 11 seasons from 2003-4 to 2014-15 Chelsea were football’s biggest spenders, but their net outlay of £751 million was only 10 per cent more than City’s in the same period, even though City spent very little between 2003 and 2007. Chelsea’s net spend in those 11 seasons was 64 per cent of the total combined net outlay of Real Madrid and Barcelona, whereas City’s since 2008 is more than Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s put together.
Guardiola might see the apparent obsession with City’s spending as yet more evidence of the pervasive bias against his club. After all, Manchester United under Alex Ferguson enjoyed a near-hegemonic position in English football, yet their financial power was not held against them as City’s has been.
The crucial difference was this: everyone knew that United’s power and success had grown out of years of intelligent decisions. They had the best manager. They were the first club to understand the commercial potential of their brand. They invested in expanding Old Trafford at a time when that was the best economic move a club could make. They turned youth team players into sporting and commercial stars. Even those who resented United’s domination understood that it had been earned.
Alleged rule breaches
City’s domination has been bought, and that would feel unfair even if they were not currently being investigated for alleged rule breaches by Fifa, Uefa, the Premier League and the FA. On social media their fans often respond to criticism with variations on the theme “We won the lottery, you’re just bitter”. But bitterness is a natural reaction in the circumstances. To neutrals, City’s success is not an inspirational sports story. It’s just another depressing example of the Matthew principle we see at work in almost every economic arena, with the rich leveraging their wealth and power to get richer, and the rest left further and further behind. Free markets might sound good in economic models, but in real life they always seem to end up getting cornered, and City have had this one where they want it for a few years now.
City victories are now the default outcome in this rigged game and there is not much left to say about them, so it’s not really surprising that the focus has increasingly turned to issues surrounding their funding and ownership. It’s enough to make you question the whole concept of sportswashing. Abu Dhabi might have got involved with City as a way to project and improve its global standing, but is that how things have played out? If you had polled football fans in 2007 about what they associated with Abu Dhabi, you’d probably have received a lot of blank looks. Now they’ll mention Yemen, slaves, the abuse of human rights and so on. Was it really worth it?
City do at least have an army of sky-blue advocates fighting their cause on social media. When the New York Times reported last week that Uefa’s investigatory chamber was set to recommend a one-year Champions League ban for City, the response from many fans was to lash out: Uefa were corrupt, Financial Fair Play was an establishment stitch-up, the NYT journalists were Liverpool fans, and this disgraceful hit-piece on City had only been published because the NYT owned shares in Liverpool (the NYT did at one point own shares in Liverpool’s ownership group, but sold them in 2012). Clearly, many fans would rather latch on to any conspiracy theory than wait to see if the stories had substance. You shudder to imagine what might happen if Saudi Arabia ever does buy Manchester United, and that enormous worldwide fanbase becomes weaponised along similar lines.
It’s been the most successful week in City’s history, and the pity is that their manager, fans and PR department have seldom sounded more angry. It’s time to accept that oil-funded success and mass popularity are never going to go together. It’s as though City are perched on the back of a dragon, peering down at a sullen populace, wondering incredulously why they are not loved. Shouldn’t it be obvious?