Joe Butterfield on a tournament that divides for the blue half of Manchester.
Manchester City fans and UEFA have a funny relationship. The Champions League is the most prestigious competition in the world, the one that all teams, City’s hierarchy in particular, want to win. However, UEFA seem to have a dislike for everything City stand for and introduced Financial Fair Play to limit club spending and ensure nobody else rose to power through the same means in future. When Manchester City successfully complied with these rules, UEFA moved the goalposts at the last minute to save their blushes and ensure the system looked like it was doing its job.
This was one of the biggest offences from UEFA various other incidents UEFA have had involving City, including:
- Fining Porto €20,000 for racially abusing Mario Balotelli, then fining Manchester City €30,000 for being 30 seconds late to getting back on the pitch in the second half against Sporting Lisbon.
- Punishing CSKA Moscow for racial abuse by making them play in front of an empty stadium very close to the date of their home game against Manchester City, leaving many blues with uncancellable flights. CSKA then rightfully denied all City fans entry but, unsurprisingly, allowed hundreds of CSKA fans into the stadium right in front of the UEFA delegates who attended the game. This blatant breach of their ban was not only unpunished, but the initial stadium ban punishment for CSKA was actually reduced on appeal from the club.
- Suddenly relaxing the laws on Financial Fair Play as soon as AC Milan came into a lot of money from Chinese investors.
- Announcing a new coefficient points system, in which historical European success would become more of a factor, immediately favouring the big teams like Manchester United and Liverpool rather than City.
- Investigating whether or not to fine the club for the fans booing the anthem.
City fans have booed the anthem for years for this multitude of reasons and it doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.
We now come to the Lyon game and one particular statistic which caught my eye as Nabil Fekir put the French side two goals up in the second half.
6 – Six of the last eight instances of Manchester City conceding twice in the first half of a match at the Etihad have been in the Champions League. Theme. pic.twitter.com/itnIPpZnZE
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 19, 2018
This can’t be a coincidence. You may be able to look at each game individually and find an excuse for each one, last night could be attributed to Lyon taking their chances well, exploiting a couple of individual mistakes, a penalty not being given to City when the score was 1-0, a ridiculously good finish from Fekir, whatever you like. But there’s an inherent issue with Manchester City and the Champions League and it comes from the stands. Far be it from me to agree with the kind of empty-seat-counting morons who fill Twitter feeds across the country every time Manchester City’s attendance figures fall below 50,000 (although according to recent reports that would seemingly be the majority of last season). However, when it comes to the Champions League, it’s tough to really mount a staunch defence of the fans.
I feel that I need to preface this point by pointing out that I do understand that access to mid-week games is not necessarily available to everybody. For many, the slow, incremental rise of a season ticket is a big enough expense and adding cup games to that bill isn’t rationally or fiscally justifiable. City have a famously working class fanbase in quite the contrast to the high profile European heavyweight club they now support and there’s obviously nothing wrong with not attending every single game. I’d wager that 90% of the people who picked last night to go to their first ever City game have probably still racked up more game attendances than the people who spend their time on Twitter pointing at the empty seats.
But there’s more to this than just the financial aspect. Some City fans, and I’ve seen plenty of them all over social media and heard plenty of them in the ground at Premier League games, just outright dislike the competition. “UEFA are corrupt, UEFA hate City, UEFA’s referees hate City, why should we care about their stupid trophy?”
I’m not about to deny that UEFA are corrupt, much like FIFA they obviously are, and I’m certainly not going to get into the conspiracy theories surrounding UEFA referees and their treatment towards City over the years, which probably isn’t hugely disproportionate to any other clubs in the competition if we’re going to be painfully neutral. UEFA’s dislike of Manchester City, however, is pretty well documented and ultimately the incidents have been taking place since City’s first ever season in the competition. When the club has been treated so badly from day one, it’s no wonder that plenty of fans have a dislike for UEFA.
As somebody who has had a season ticket for years and attended Champions League games during this time, there is an obvious and noteworthy difference in atmospheres between the two competitions. Premier League games are filled to capacity (almost) by the club’s regular fans. Everybody can get behind the Premier League. It’s a competition which has only changed in name since the beginning of football. Winning the league is the biggest one for many fans, it’s the one everybody wants to win. The Etihad is hardly Signal Iduna Park but it’s a fairly standard Premier League atmosphere in today’s modern age.
Contrast this to Champions League nights and it’s night and day (literally). City may have reported attendance figures of 40,111 but, as somebody who’s attended many a game where the visual reality hasn’t matched with the numbers being thrown around by the club, I would happily put money on the attendance being closer to 30,000 than 40,000. This would be fine if the fans who turned up were happy to create an atmosphere but, again, as somebody who has been to numerous Champions League games, this is unrealistic.
Due to both the cost and difficulty to get tickets for City’s Premier League games, Champions League games are the most easily accessible for non-regular fans to go to games. If you sit in the family stand on a Champions League night, you see the average age in the crowd drop about 10 years as classes of school children who’ve got free tickets in a bid to increase attendances for flagging games are hauled in to make up the numbers. Now, obviously, I have no issue with this. Everybody should have the chance to go to a game no matter how often they attend and if the seats are going to be empty anyway then there’s no harm done. The reality is, however, that the irregular fans, the families, the tourists and the schoolchildren are not the types to create an atmosphere the players are going to thrive in. Most of the schoolkids who turn up aren’t even City fans, they’re just there for the free tickets. The club finds itself in an awkward middle-ground, where there’s enough of the regular fans to kick off every game by booing the Champions League anthem, but not enough to actually make an atmosphere beyond that.
Now the problem isn’t schoolchildren, it’s not the tourists and it’s not the non-regular fans. Every game has those. The problem is the traditional fanbase and their hatred of the competition. I fully understand the reasons behind the intense dislike of UEFA and I share those frustrations but I stopped booing the Champions League anthem a long time ago. As a fanbase, we’ve made our point – we don’t like UEFA. UEFA can’t not know this by now.
Pep Guardiola himself has urged the fans to get past the booing but, naturally, it has fallen on deaf ears. I would assume that he had not researched the reasons why City boo at that stage, but the point is a valid one all the same. I don’t want to throw out the phrase “small club mentality”, but City aren’t the plucky underdog being beaten down by UEFA anymore. We’re not the new kid on the block who have got to fight against the big bad organisation anymore. We went into this competition as the bookies’ favourite to win it. We’ve just won the Premier League playing the best football in the league’s history. We won the league with 100 points. 100 fucking points. We’ve got to start acting like it.
Ultimately, if the fans don’t get behind the team in this competition, the players aren’t going to live up to their potential in it. Look at Inter Milan’s welcome home to the competition. Look at Red Star Belgrade’s triumphant return to the competition. These are the kinds of atmospheres which can make a huge difference in the big games and the latter stages but we don’t look anywhere close to getting more than three or four chants getting around the stadium across 90 minutes, let alone anything on that level. Would the top teams in Europe come out of the tunnel at the Etihad in a Champions League Quarter Final and be intimidated by the atmosphere? No. Absolutely not.
Manchester United and Liverpool fans were devastated to see their side out of the Champions League for a few years as their clubs went through a tough period. Arsenal fans are going through the same now, as are Chelsea fans. Inter Milan and Red Star’s fans are evidence that this competition means a lot to fans all around the world. Yet somehow I get the feeling that if we failed to qualify for the Champions League it’d be welcomed with open arms by large portions of the fanbase.
Pep Guardiola’s daughter cried her eyes out when we lost to Lyon in the first game of the group stages. I wonder how many City fans would cry even half as much if we lost the Champions League final?