Manchester City & The Contradictions of Financial Fair Play

by | Feb 16, 2020

On Friday, Manchester City were banned from the Champions League for two seasons and fined €30m Euros for breaching FFP regulations. This is, of course, a surface reading of it all. They weren’t merely punished for breaching the regulations in the first place. They didn’t just overstate their sponsorship revenues over a period of (at least) four years. They also engaged in a systematic campaign to discredit the investigation into their malfeasance, by repeatedly implying that the entire process is thoroughly corrupt. The language of the club’s senior management, a language so used to getting what it wants when it wants that it is incapable of admitting wrongdoing, has become the language of its supporters, as well.

Believe it or not, though, it is possible to believe more than one angle to this story at the same time. On the one hand, it is possible to believe that FFP was introduced as a way of satiating the cash-lust of the thoroughly entrenched. By limiting the amount of “new money” that came into the professional game, the advantages of those who’d already in situ could be preserved in perpetuity. It’s unlikely that UEFA ever aspired to pull this financial drawbridge up completely, but with the threat – sometimes explicit, and considerably more often implied – of the biggest clubs to literally pick up behind their ball and taking it behind their gated fence, they apparently felt that they had to do something to placate them. A breakaway European Super League was something to be avoided at all costs.

Financial Fair Play is deeply flawed, but not necessarily for the reasons that many perceive it to be. There was an argument, ten years or so ago, that FFP would be worth very little unless accompanied by considerable financial destribution across the entire game. Unless accompanied by this, it was argued, its only significant effect would be to entrench already existing hierarchies. In other words, what the biggest clubs would ideally have wanted. And to an extent, this is what has happened, regardless of FFP. Rampant inequality runs almost unchecked through every area of the game. Almost every European domestic league has becom a closed shop, with some becoming little more than vast series of exhibition matches at the end of which the same faces hoover up all the silverware.

It is, however, also possible to believe that Manchester City have behaved egregiously throughout this entire episode, whipping their supporters into a frenzy of unfounded conspiracy whilst deflecting these very serious allegations. The question of whether they are true or not has been semi-buried under a welter of complaints about how supporting evidence was obtained, a fairly transparent attempt to discredit their authenticity. The emails uncovered revealed a deep contempt for anything that may prevent them from getting what they want, and the key question regarding these emails isn’t, “how were they obtained?”, but “are they genuine?” Precious little material evidence has been provided to indicate that it isn’t, beyond insinuation.

None of this has been a strong look for the club. Much as Manchester City have been keen to push the narrative that they are somehow “plucky underdogs” in this case, they are not, just as they have not been underdogs in any sense for most of the last decade. They have been funded by vast amounts of money and have become a symbol of inequality, not just within the relatively trifling world of professional football but, on account of the identity of their owners, in the world in a broader sense.

None of the cavalcade of genuinely great players that have passed through the club’s doors did so because of any inherent love for Manchester City. They’ve done so for the same reasons that the majority of professional footballers have moved clubs throughout the history of the game. And that’s fair, because it is their job. No-one in their right mind would criticise players themselves for going where the money is, or where there is a plan which may bring the successes that they crave. The titles and trophies won by Manchester City over the last few years aren’t “tainted”, either. Taint would come if actual match-fixing had been going on, if cheating had taken place within matches itself. This, however, has not been happening with regard to Manchester City, and to imply otherwise is overreaching. This debate is not a zero-sum game.

And none of this is the fault of their supporters, either. It has been a common enough thought, over the last few years: If your club was taken over by despots with more money than sense, what would you do? Would you hit a point at which you couldn’t square it with your conscience any more? Or would you become a “my club right or wrong” type? The truth is that few of us can answer this question with much certainty, and evidence from other clubs suggests that it’s highly likely that more people have swung towards the latter than the former.

There is no moral superiority to be had here, from any angle, though. Supporters of other clubs have been piling on over the last couple of days, apparently oblivious to whatever role their club might have had in perpetuating inequality in football. The number of genuinely ethically admirable football clubs is vanishingly small, and the chances are that your club is not on that list. Professional football in the 21st century is what happens when a race to the bottom starts circling the plug hole, and very few of us are completely innocent in that regard. We’ve all bought into it and consumed it, after all.

The biggest problem within this whole debate, though, is ultimately one of bad faith. Society has become twitchy and defensive, almost entirely incapable of acting in good faith or even being able to accept that anybody else may be capable of doing so. And in a culture that is spiralling towards toxic levels of obfuscation, truth is starting to feel like an endangered concept. When everybody’s spinning, the truth can become an irrelevance. All that matters is what side you end up supporting, which trenches you end up sitting in, hurling your brickbats towards opposing trenches, whilst circle-jerking ourselves into a state of unquestioning righteousness.

What is striking is the extent to which no-one, not even those doing their gleeful performative dances about it on social media at the moment, seem to have any faith in the Council for Arbitration in Sport to do anything other than reduce Manchester City’s punishment. The general consensus seems to be that the CAS will either significantly reduce the sanctions or remove them altogether. Some admission of guilt on the part of Manchester City would be most welcome, but Manchester City are owned by men who are likely incapable of doing so. They’ve spent their whole lives getting their own way, and it seems unlikely that they will change their ways over this.

Since professionalism was first introduced into football 125 years ago, inequality has been one of the game’s fundamental truths. And supporters have, on the whole, been much kinder about than we often should have been. Attempts have been made to curb it, but historical record shows us that these rules have been pushed to breaking point for as long as they’ve been in place. Perhaps the biggest surprise about this is that the game didn’t cleave apart long ago. The fact that it hasn’t yet doesn’t mean that it can’t ever happen in the future, though.

But no-one even seems to care about that, any more. Very few  people are interested in “football”, these days. We seem to primarily be interested in winning, and preferably for this winning to be accompanied by rubbing our rivals faces in it. Just as in so many other walks of life at the moment. The conversation that we should be having at the moment would concern the sort of game that we all want to watch and participate in, but that ship sailed long ago. All that’s left is the caterwauling of the entitled, and an empty space where a soul should probably exist but in all likelihood never has, and never will.