It’s the summer of 2008. Sheikh Mansour has approached Manchester City to take over the club. After a season under Thaksin Sinawatra, the club finds itself in financial crisis and on the verge of being bankrupted and administration is a legitimate possibility, as Thaksin has his assets frozen by the Thai government and is scrambling around for loans to keep the club afloat. Garry Cook, the Executive Chairman at the club, takes one look at the opportunity to sell the club to the Sheikh and gives it some thought.
“No,” he decides, “if it isn’t organic growth, we don’t want to hear about it. Our owner must be British and willing to invest not a penny beyond our own income.”
Manchester City fall into financial ruin, are forced to sell their best players, get relegated the following season and spend the next decade milling around the Championship along with the likes of Birmingham City and Leeds United. Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal wipe the sweat from their brows, safe in the knowledge that their status as an unchallenged top four is secure.
Needless to say, this is not what happened as Manchester City had the audacity to allow their club to be saved from a financial black hole. Sheikh Mansour came to the club’s rescue, investing hundreds upon hundreds of millions, entering into the billions, to try to create a successful global brand. He also pumped money into the infrastructure of the area surrounding the club and the centre of Manchester itself. He built some of the greatest training facilities in the world for the club.
This has annoyed many a rival fan, perfectly understandably. Imagine how sick you’d feel seeing your neighbour win the lottery, knowing that they’ll no longer be bumping into you at the local off-license, quietly muttering “alright” as you make awkward eye-contact in the doorway, a bottle of £3 wine in his hand. No, he’s going to be doing his weekly shop at Waitrose, only he won’t even have to leave the house. He’ll have it delivered directly to his door. He won’t have to buy £3 British-made wine anymore, he’ll be on the expensive French stuff in his Cheshire mansion.
On a footballing level, that’s how rival fans probably feel about the takeover. It’s anger, but not at the opposition fans or, for some, even the club itself (though they may think it is). It’s anger that they’re not the ones who got the lucky break. They’ve had to do football “the proper way” (if such a thing exists), waiting for the natural cycle of football to give their club the perfect storm of a great squad, great manager and great ownership structure to allow for them to compete at the top level again. All the while City, to quote the great Stephen Howson, are “some rich dickhead whose dad bought them a Lamborghini”.
With the latest Der Spiegel leaks it’s clear that the financial “doping” of Manchester City and PSG is the target, much like the sordid underworld of agent fees and extortionate player transfers and contracts was the target of the previous set of leaks earlier this year. Needless to say, the fact that Manchester City and PSG were discovered to have not only broken Financial Fair Play rules, but kicked the rules into pieces, taken a hammer to each of those pieces to break them down even further, then ground those tiny pieces into dust, has given the President of La Liga, Javier Tebas, enough juicy material for as many lonely nights as he can imagine.
The surface level of the story is much worse than it actually is. Manchester City breaking financial fair play, whatever the extent of it may be, is not news. Manchester City and PSG were both very publicly punished for exactly that. However, at the time many a City fan were asking why the club didn’t just take UEFA to court over the concept of FFP itself, a rule which at the time, for some baffling reason, capped the amount of investment an owner could put into their club and limited the spending of the club, no matter what the long-term plan may have been, despite allowing clubs like Manchester United to operate with £500 million worth of debt hanging over their heads.
Sure, this prevented the likes of a Portsmouth from happening again any time soon, but it also ensured that the current elite, the status quo, remained unchallenged. If Sheikh Mansour, with virtually unlimited resources and a family fortune of literally £1 trillion behind him, wanted to buy a football club and invest the necessary money to make them a competitive force in football, he would not have been allowed to do so under the current ruling at the time. City and PSG both threatened legal action against UEFA and they, knowing their ruling probably wouldn’t hold up to much scrutiny if it went to a higher authority and also wanting to save face, not fancying their first attempt to dish out high-profile punishments being legally challenged, agreed a settlement with the two clubs.
Does it completely undermine the purpose of FFP? Absolutely. Are Manchester City to blame for this? No. Well, kind of no. They did go a hell of a long way over their FFP allowances, presumably because they were fairly confident they’d win any legal battle which may have taken place if any punishment was placed on them (Khaldoon Al Mubarak reportedly told UEFA’s General Secretary at the time, Gianni Infantino, that he “would rather spend £30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them” than accept any sanctions, which, agree or not, is pretty ballsy and confident). However, is anybody going to suggest for one minute that if Manchester United or Liverpool, or any of the rest of Europe’s traditional elite, were caught afoul of FFP, they’d just accept it and not put up a similar legal challenge and receive a similar settlement?
Only that’d never happen. Because they’re exactly the kind of clubs FFP was designed to protect. A financial mile-high club that only they could occupy. Only the privileged may enter this world, you have to flash your “Good Debt” card at the door and, if it exceeds £300m, you’re allowed in. Debt-free clubs who spend within the means of their ownership with the long-term plan to become a self-sustaining football club are not permitted.
Of course, the real problem at the heart of this is UEFA. Both for putting the ridiculous rules in place to begin with and for then bottling the opportunity to publicly dish out harsh punishments when confronted with legal action, which they must have surely predicted when setting out these rules in the first place. Manchester City, along with PSG, have just exploited UEFA’s own corruption. Should City have simply not bothered to challenge them? Should Khaldoon have just accepted an extortionate punishment from a rule he fundamentally disagrees with, just in the hopes that it might keep Nick Harris happy?
Plenty of journalists have leapt on the leaks, many crying that Manchester City are turning the game into some kind of financial joke. Miguel Delaney took to Twitter to voice his frustration at the kind of spending City have undertaken.
Of course, Delaney references the fairly legitimate argument that the original top four of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea needed breaking up, however apparently doing so by spending money wasn’t the right way to go about it. There’s a special, magical way to do it that he chooses not to actually divulge. When asked, he dodges the question completely.
“The horse has bolted,” He replies, “but clubs should really have been state ring-fenced as social institutions. They should not be propaganda vehicles for states.”
And so, within a single reply, the heart of the issue is exposed and, as usual, it’s not about the money itself but more where it comes from. It’s the politics of the investment which ruffles the feathers of many. The money is obviously an issue to some extent but I find it hard to believe that if it was coming from billionaire tycoon John Smith there’d be anywhere near as much of an uproar. It’s those damn Middle-Eastern blokes and their lack of Western values that are the problem. They make women hide their faces and everything!
To be fair to Delaney, I may be singling him out here but he’s not the only one. If anything, he’s seemed quite open to genuinely debate plenty of City fans who challenged him on the topic and his arguments (though I disagree with them) are fairly consistent. His problem with the situation isn’t necessarily quite as simplistic as “City and those damn foreigners” as I’m making out.
Despite this, it didn’t stop him and his colleagues at the Independent from turning Manchester City’s 6-1 victory over Southampton into a eulogy for the Premier League because they’ve performed the unimaginable feat of going two points clear at the top of the league in November, bemoaning the death of football as Manchester City lead the charge for money ruining the game. This is a Manchester City team which, less than six months ago, Miguel himself on the very same podcast said was not one of the all-time greats because they haven’t retained a title. However, now that they’ve finally put some daylight between themselves and Liverpool after eleven league games then we might as well just sack the whole thing off. Pack it up, football’s over, lads.
On the topic of Manchester City’s money completely distorting football, let’s see how that holds up, shall we?
I combined the expenditure of Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool (Arsenal are a huge outlier in spend due to Wenger’s brilliance whilst Arsenal built a stadium and Spurs have obviously never been huge spenders) in every transfer window since Mansour’s takeover in 2008. These figures are based on the figures listed on transfermarkt.co.uk, so they may not be entirely accurate but the scale should still match up. The numbers listed below are in millions, with the yellow number being the combined total of all eleven windows.
In case my expert Microsoft Excel skills aren’t simple enough to follow, Manchester City are obviously still leading the way with £1.49 billion spent. A huge amount, though it’s worth nothing that the starting position for City was much lower, taking a team of Stephen Irelands, Martin Petrovs and Richard Dunnes to a team of Sergio Agueros, Yaya Toures and David Silvas in the space of four years. Chelsea are second with £1.15 billion spent, followed by United with £1.02 billion and Liverpool with £1 billion.
A huge amount of money, but how does that actually translate to ruining the transfer market? Well, Ben Golding (@GoldingBen) of Twitter has already taken care of this bit of maths, finding the total number of transfers made to work out the average cost of each purchase.
Shockingly, Manchester City don’t come top of this list, with an average player cost of £20.2 million as opposed to United’s £23.85 million. If we take a look at the highest transfers of all time, Manchester City only have one in the entire top 20, whereas Chelsea and Liverpool have two and United have three. You would only have to go back two years to find that Manchester United broke the world record transfer fee for Paul Pogba, therefore inherently inflating the price of every central midfielder (and to a degree, every player) in world football.
Manchester City may have done this on a very small, “local” level when initially building their squad in the few years which followed 2008, this cannot be denied. As they purchased the likes of Lescott, Milner and Barry for £20+ million and offered wages beyond those of their rivals to play catch-up and I’m sure this had a knock-on effect in the league which is probably still felt to some small extent now. However, on a global scale, on a “distorting the game” scale, it’s the likes of Angel Di Maria, Paul Pogba and Romelu Lukaku which have done this kind of damage, yet nobody seems overly keen to point the finger at Manchester United for doing so, certainly not within the mainstream media.
If you legitimately have an issue with Manchester City due to the ethics in the Middle-East, citing slavery and other such issues as your cause to do so then that’s fine, but do you? I hope you wear home-made clothing. I hope you don’t support football clubs sponsored by Nike or Adidas. I hope you boycott football games with any mention of Emirati airlines which sponsor clubs up and down the country. I hope you’ve long-since abandoned mobile phones, laptops or any other forms of modern technology which are assembled in the Far East at the behest of labour laws which can often border on human rights abuse.
If your reason to be angry at Manchester City is because they’ve spent an amount of money that you think is extortionate then, quite frankly, the fault lies with the system, not the club. UEFA and Sky have created a structure where the rich only get richer and, without major external investment, smaller teams having a chance of seriously competing at the top of the table is almost non-existent. If Sheikh Mansour isn’t a legitimate way to break into the elite, then what is?