Man City’s Abu Dhabi owners not the sort to back down over ban

Does a regime serially defying a UN arms embargo worry about Financial Fair Play?

Pep Guardiola with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak at the Presidential Affairs Office in Abu Dhabi in 2018. Photo: Victoria Haydn/Manchester City FC via Getty Images

Pep Guardiola with Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak at the Presidential Affairs Office in Abu Dhabi in 2018. Photo: Victoria Haydn/Manchester City FC via Getty Images

 

In 2011 Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the emir of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates, received a letter. It came from a group of Emirati intellectuals inspired by the recent wave of pro-democracy protests sweeping through the Middle East and north Africa, and requested a range of modest reforms, including an extension of the voting franchise which at the time encompassed just 2 per cent of the country’s population.

No marching on the streets. No popular unrest. Certainly no disorder of any kind. Just a letter. Nonetheless, with a regime petrified to the point of paranoia by the spectre of political Islamism, the reprisals would be swift and merciless.

Within weeks the arrests had begun, rounding up most of the 160 letter’s signatories, who were designated as “terrorists” plotting to overthrow the regime. Citizenships were revoked. Hefty prison sentences were dished out. In 2014 Abu Dhabi enacted Terrorism Law No 7, reclassifying peaceful opposition as a terrorist act punishable by death, and criminalising a whole range of hazily-defined acts, from “antagonising the state” or “stirring panic among a group of people” to “carrying explosive crackers for a terrorist purpose”.

Now: does this strike you as a group of people that is going to be intimidated by the fine print of Article 56, section (a) of the 2018 edition of Uefa’s Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations?

Does a regime serially defying a United Nations arms embargo in Libya – according to the UN’s own reports – strike you as the sort that places a high premium on bureaucratic process? Does the family that bought itself the world’s largest super-yacht – a $600m behemoth two-thirds the size of the Titanic and reportedly equipped with its own missile defence system – strike you as the sort to take a swingeing punishment with humility and good grace?

These are just some of the ways of understanding Manchester City’s current dispute with Uefa, one that for all its clear footballing repercussions carries far more sinister overtones. Trawl the City messageboards in the wake of Uefa’s decision to ban the club from the Champions League for two seasons, and it won’t take you long to stumble across the rhetoric of scorched earth: of traitors and revolutionaries, violence and purgation, shady cartels and subhuman scum.

This is the language of existential threat, the register of total warfare, and it is fed by the incendiary invective coming out of the club. One little snippet to emerge is the fact City’s appeals to the court of arbitration for sport have been dubbed “Cas One” and “Cas Two”, as if they were military campaigns, rather than ringbinders being delivered to a courtroom by clerks in TM Lewin suits. Witness, too, the assertion of the club’s lawyer Simon Cliff in the Der Spiegel leaks of 2018 that “Uefa doesn’t respond to anything other than aggression”, that a lawsuit against its auditor could “destroy the entire organisation within weeks”. City talk about their footballing enemies the way Abu Dhabi talks about its real ones.

This, perhaps, was the most persuasive argument against allowing cherished footballing institutions to fall under the control of entire states. It wasn’t the lack of transparency or the potential for financial distortion, grave as those are. But in hindsight it was perhaps inevitable over time clubs would come to resemble state actors in their own right, that sporting problems would impel geopolitical solutions, that the cut and thrust of footballing sabre-rattling would increasingly take on the character of the real thing.

There has always been a slight misconception about the concept popularly known as “sportswashing”, the attempt by autocratic regimes to embed their soft power through sport. It is never purely a PR exercise: there are PR firms for that and they tend not to go to the trouble of spending £1.5bn on footballers or rebuilding large parts of east Manchester. Rather, it helps to think of the sportswash as some vast, pointless infrastructure project: a man-made glacier, a giant bridge to nowhere, a Nando’s visible from space. The objective is to create something so iridescently perfect that it generates its own innate shock and awe, a timeless monument to beauty, wealth and the power to do whatever the hell you want.

And so there is a rich double irony at work here. Firstly, for all the eye-watering sums lavished on the brilliant Guardiola sides, it is instead the years of faltering ascent, the 2012-16 era, for which City are being punished: not the years of £50m full-backs, but your Mangalas and Rodwells and Wilfried Bonys. Secondly, that one of the world’s most meticulously-crafted sporting projects could be undone by simple naivety: an apparent belief the rule of law could be subverted by force of will alone, a failure to build any sort of political or diplomatic contingency against it. While the Qataris at Paris Saint-Germain made it a priority to infiltrate the corridors of power, City find themselves adrift: friendless and alone, with only their money and their hubris to protect them.

It may yet be enough. The word is City are stockpiling a cache of inflammatory evidence against other clubs, in anticipation of an epic fight. Perhaps, armed with a battery of lawyers and accountants, they will get their ban overturned. Perhaps, as some of the more bellicose voices insist, they will even destroy the apparatus of football as we know it, which definitely feels like a proportionate response to not being allowed to sign Stevan Jovetic. Either way, you sense for City the ends will always justify the means. After all football, like geopolitics, is very much a results business. – Guardian

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.