Crisis at the top
Paul Demarty asks what the expulsion of Manchester City from Europe means for a sport married to mega money.
On Valentine’s Day in 1998, Manchester City hosted Bury FC in what was then the first division - the second tier of English football. Bury and their fans travelled the short distance home as 1-0 victors - one of many bad days in a terrible season for City, who were relegated to spend their first ever (and so far only) season in the third tier.
February 14 2020, in a piece of cruel anti-serendipity, saw bad news for both teams, although they now occupy not only different leagues, but different planes of existence. Bury, in a limbo state since the team’s expulsion from the league last autumn, learned that its owner, Steve Dale, had defaulted on his debts, and so the club will now almost certainly be liquidated entirely, bringing to an end 130 years of (admittedly mostly unremarkable) history. Man City, meanwhile, are defending Premier League champions and sitting pretty in second place; but their immediate future was cast into chaos after Uefa (the Union of European Football Associations) ruled that they had seriously breached financial fair-play rules and banned them from the Champion’s League for two seasons.
City’s misfortune casts a light on the current state of elite football, its extraordinarily obvious corruption by the forces of capital, and also hints at a step-change to come. Bury’s demise is indicative of the effects this circus has on the thousands of teams of more modest ambitions. For now, these two phenomena are linked - although part of the story is that they may not be for very much longer.
Only the most deluded of City fans could deny the crucial role played by moneyed new owners in the journey from the second division to the cream of the English footballing elite, as they certainly were in the two seasons before this one. Though they fought their way back to the premiership under an antique ownership structure, by the middle of the 2000s City were on the shopping lists of some very wealthy individuals. The first to buy them was the Thai tycoon and deposed prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra; things were looking up until it turned out that the military junta that replaced him back home had frozen most of his $800 million fortune. A mysterious consortium of Arab investors swept in to the rescue, and it soon became clear that the real mover behind it was Sheikh Mansour, a senior member of the Abu Dhabi royal family. Mansour was playing for keeps, and invested enormous amounts of money. It paid off, and City won their first premier league title on goal difference in 2012.
At the same time, however, plans were afoot to restrict this particular business model. Manchester City were not the only club to benefit from enormous injections of cash of this sort: in this country, Chelsea had already been propelled from mid-table stagnation to considerable success, thanks to the financial clout of the Russian oligarch, Roman Abramovich; and the Qatari regime has since bought Paris Saint-Germain, with the result that Ligue 1 is essentially a one-party state at this point. Rules for ‘financial fair play’ (FFP) were cooked up by Uefa, and considerably shaped by the continent’s most powerful clubs; the result was that strict limits were placed on the losses clubs were permitted to make over several years.
This was highly problematic for a club like City under its new ownership structure. Yet, as is the way with capitalism - especially high finance - there is usually a way around the problem. City’s get-out (and not only theirs) was to use sponsorship money from various Abu Dhabi businesses (notably the Etihad airline), which counts as revenue, instead of direct investment from the owners, which does not. These businesses, of course, are very closely linked to the monarchy.
City have already been fined under FFP rules before: the recent reopening of the case comes after a large cache of internal emails was leaked by Rui Pinto - a Portuguese man who has embarrassed many football clubs this way and is currently facing trial for hacking (which he denies). The emails reveal the contempt with which the club treated the rules, openly discussing means of flouting them, and making crass comments about Uefa’s investigators. This apparent breach of trust led to the far more serious sanction of a two-year ban from European football.
On the verge
There is a lot at stake for Man City, as they prepare to drag this through the Court of Arbitration for Sport (and perhaps then the European Court of Justice). Missing out on two Champion’s Leagues will cost them something like £200 million in missing TV revenues and sundries. It also makes the loss of their restless head coach, Pep Guardiola, far more likely, and may cause a stampede to the exits for their best players. In itself, however, that is not terribly interesting (unless you are a fan of the club, or of a club that might be able to hire Guardiola).
The interest starts when we imagine City winning this battle - an outcome that would essentially find the FFP regulations unlawful, or at least Uefa incompetent to regulate the European game. Even if Uefa prevails, and the punishment is upheld, there is a non-doomsday version of all this, whereby City are joined in a boycott by other big clubs with a chip on their shoulder about Uefa, or reasons to be worried about sterner enforcement of the rules.
The fact that we can talk about these scenarios - indeed, even the fact that the City PR strategy in relation to all this is to declare war on Uefa and declare it to be biased, corrupt and responsible for breaches of information security - indicates that we are on the threshold of a crisis in the sport.
Uefa is vulnerable to these sorts of charges, because it is seen - accurately - as too beholden to the elite European clubs. City’s posture as underdog outsiders is laughable in 2020, but keenly felt at least among supporters (and, as the sheer nastiness of some of the leaked emails suggests, also at many levels of the club hierarchy). FFP has always been vulnerable to the accusation that it permanently enshrines those clubs that are already very wealthy and therefore have huge existing revenues from commercial partnerships, merchandising and all the rest as an impenetrable aristocracy. The timing of its introduction is felt by the City faithful to be rather less than coincidental, as if it were designed to keep them out of that elite.
In recent years, meanwhile, talk has gotten louder about a breakaway by all of Europe’s richest clubs to form a ‘super league’ - an eventuality given plausibility by the huge gulf that separates them from their national competitors. Paris Saint-Germain have won every Ligue 1 title except one since the Qatari takeover, by an average margin of around 15 points. The past and present of the German Bundesliga is a story of overwhelming dominance by Bayern Munich - though they are now challenged by RB Leipzig, the plaything of the ever larger Red Bull sports-franchise empire, with minor tweaks to get around the stricter German laws on club ownership. Real Madrid and Barcelona have between them won all but five league titles in Spain since 1990, and Juventus are on track to claim their ninth consecutive scudetto.
The Premier League is less predictable, partly because our parasitic, tax-haven economy is more welcoming to dubious benefactors with suitcases full of banknotes than Germany or Spain, with their strong traditions of fan ownership (it should be noted that RB Leipzig are widely despised for this reason). There is the possibility, then, of a Manchester City or Chelsea situation. We also have a lot of crafty accountants to hand who can engineer a club’s way around rules like FFP. The current state of affairs, with an undefeated Liverpool streaking off into the distance, is a bit of a fluke - though it is worth remembering that two years ago City were not much less dominant. Nonetheless, there is a well-established ‘top six’, however much it is fraying this season, and it would be foolish to expect (say) Sheffield United - a newly promoted side vastly outperforming their budget - to permanently replace Arsenal or Tottenham Hotspur as an elite force in the English game.
A European Super League would be a natural sequel to the foundation of the Premiership, which saw the top 20 clubs secede from the football league - essentially to get out of having to split their suddenly vast TV revenues with the likes of Tranmere Rovers and Plymouth Argyle via the existing ‘solidarity arrangements’. But it would be far more dramatic in its effects. The Premier League remains, after all, within a continuous football hierarchy that reaches down to Sunday leagues, however notional that continuum is.
And it is getting pretty notional. Although there are still, as there were 50 years ago, four tiers of professional football in this country, in reality there are two: the best and the rest. The disparity becomes more obvious with every shiny new stadium and training ground. The revenue gulf is so great that clubs spend wildly in the second tier for a chance at even one year in the top flight; which in turn drives up transfer fees and wages at all levels. (Bury FC in fact bankrupted themselves in pursuit of promotion to the third tier.)
A continent-wide version of that would necessarily sever these ties altogether. (Who would get relegated, to where?) Elite football would become formally, as well as de facto, an oligarchy of extremely wealthy clubs. Everything else would be reduced to the status of minor-league baseball in America - effectively a proving ground for new ‘talent’. Some of that infrastructure already exists, with owners (including the Abu Dhabi crowd that owns City and, of course, Red Bull) acquiring a growing portfolio of clubs, and the best players being siphoned upwards into the elite outfits - a cheaper option than wrestling with super-agents and rival teams on the open transfer market. In baseball, this system is close to a century old, and is charmingly called ‘farming’.
Part of the urgency of the situation for City, then, is that a lot may depend on who has a seat when the music stops on football as we know it. And part of the urgency for Uefa is making sure that it is integral to this brave new world, which is by no means guaranteed. Few enough people doubt that this will happen one way or another, so obviously is it the terminal point of the game’s development over the last three decades.
Football, certainly throughout its modern history, has always had an edge of class struggle, beginning with the expropriation of a traditional peasant game by the English public schools and its codification by such types, which was partially reversed by the successive revolutions in play and organisation imposed by teams of working class men in Scotland and England. As the game spread to other countries, it did so confusingly in both forms at once; the public school elite heritage is visible in team names like Newell’s Old Boys (Argentina) and Young Boys (Switzerland). The proletarian and otherwise plebeian side shows up in the slum boys who became some of the great individual geniuses of the game in Brazil; the importance in the English game of overtly socialist managers like Brian Clough, Bill Shankly and even Alex Ferguson; and in the profile above all of football supporters in the game’s strongholds.
Its expropriation by the old elite of the public schools was abortive, then; the more recent raid on the most universally successful form of mass popular culture outside of the major world religions (not necessarily outside of them, depending on who you ask ... ) by those elites’ successors - the financiers, media moguls and their fossil-fuel-oligarch friends - is rapidly reaching its completion.
Football fans are historically underserved by the left, which is suspicious of the apparently divisive tribalism of ultra-culture and - more and more - of the promotion of a shallow, acquisitive consumerism, as the players get richer and more flash (to say nothing of the lingering spectre of racism and sexism in the stands, and quasi-fascist groupings like the English Defence League and Democratic Football Lads Alliance). The few bright spots are the overtly leftwing clubs - notably Hamburg’s FC Sankt Pauli, who have a vibrant following in global antifa circles.
Nevertheless, there is a real ground for this unease, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: one more piece of evidence for demagogues to cite, when they decry the left as fundamentally middle class, and implicitly or explicitly opposing a mythical ‘working class culture’ which is macho, patriotic and whatever else; making football culture more alienating to the left; and so on.
Labour’s election manifesto in December did contain a whole section on reforms to football, which aimed to mitigate the kleptocratic side of the game, and, while it was good of the inveterate Arsenal fan, Jeremy Corbyn, to actually try, the actual policy prescriptions were extremely modest - not even going so far as the existing German system on fan ownership, for example.
The revolutionary left ought not to be so timid: football’s disastrous marriage to money must be annulled entirely. The changes to the game will be considerable, but it will be ours again.