Manchester City: Both a Symptom & a Cause

It was a boot into the face of competitive football, a boot laced with threaded gold, but relentless in its pursuit of more. And it’s probably already self-perpetuating, building on its own swagger and the fear of others. This is the age of the plutocrats, and it morality doesn’t matter so long as you’re the beneficiary of it. The previous record for winning an FA Cup final was held by Bury, six-nil winners against Derby County, but it’s difficult to imagine that the 1903 FA Cup Final was anything like even the same sport as this. It isn’t really, in many ways.

At a time when one might have expected them to be celebrating an unprecedented domestic treble, though, a section of the Manchester City support has instead decided to indulge itself in conspiracy theories. Seb Stafford-Bloor covered the matter far more eloquently than I could on F365 earlier this week. It certainly is a problem within football, this, and would look pretty unprepossessing on the supporters of any club, never mind the one which has just won every available domestic honour. It would seem that the rest of football isn’t just expected to merely respect and fear their football team, apparently. We should also overlook the nature and morals of their owners with a generosity that they would never, ever, ever extend towards anybody else, apparently.

Because the entire culture of football is so infantile and emotionally stunted, it can only view any form of criticism through prisms of “love” and “hate.” Those who only wear glasses tinted in the colours of the clubs that they support can only view any criticism of the object of their swivel-eyed obsession as the inverse of their “love.” Everybody must have an agenda, and that agenda must be uniquely singling out their team for criticism, whether that is actually true or not.

The idea that it is desirable for the football media to be biased is a flame that has been fanned by the growing trend on the part of television broadcasters to ally certain former players to their ex-clubs for the purposes of “analysis.” This tendency now seems to have led some to apparently believe that any negative story or opinion of their club in the media can only come from a position of bias rather than to, say, expose truth, provide honest criticism in good faith, or whatever.

A few years earlier, it was Chelsea and, when we consider how they arrived by both their and City’s billions of pounds, it would be a little daft to say that the two clubs were picked by their respective owners completely at random. It has been pretty much a crap shoot on who ends up with who in the top half of the Premier League, ownership-wise, over the last fifteen years or so. As such, to single out Manchester City for criticism could feel almost unfair.

It might have been anybody apart from Chelsea (who still retain their largely dormant billionaire owner), or Liverpool, Manchester United or Arsenal (all three of whom will be owned until the end of civilisation – currently stencilled in for 2027) – by rapacious vulture capitalists with souls of freshly tanned leather). And it’s hardly as though the fan bases of the other big clubs haven’t been perfectly able to construct conspiracy theories of their own in the past when they perceived slights against their own clubs, so it can hardly be said that Manchester City’s fan base is particularly worse than the supporters of other clubs have over the last ten years or would have been, had they been given the opportunity.

It just so happens, though, that this is Manchester City’s turn in the spotlight. Winning a clean sweep of domestic trophies will have that effect, and that’s before we factor in small matters such the song that their staff were recorded singing last week or the club’s unpleasantly pugnacious response to allegations of misleading UEFA over FFP. It is fair criticism to say that more should have been said in the past about every aspect of Manchester City’s ownership, their activities away from the football club, their obfuscation over FFP, and their reponse to the allegations now made against them, but none of that means that the conversations of the last couple of weeks shouldn’t have been held either, though.

The desire of the most swivel-eyed should never be allowed to silence debate, so long as that debate is being held in good faith. And the wilder extremes of City’s spending over the last eleven years is part of a broader debate to be had concerning what professional football is, what it will be, and what we might want it to be. Treasured as they may be by some, Bill Shankly’s quote-worthy comments about football and socialism were optimistic in the 1960s and sound like remnants from a long-distant era nowadays.

Football has always loved money, and its capacity to earn it has grown over the last four decades in ways that Shankly would scarcely have believed imaginable. In short, professional football loves capitalism, quite possibly even more than it even loves itself. Throw in the possibility of soft political power, and the idea of the “people’s game” starts to sound like little more than a rose-tinted anachronism, little more than a founding myth that has had little basis in reality for more than half a century.

Capitalism boils things down. It concentrates resources in smaller and smaller sets of hands. Capitalism ultimately hates competition because competition slows growth, the perpetual demand upon which its systems and expectations rest. What capitalism ultimately aspires to is private monopoly, and the egos of those involved are such that it’s a fight to the death that everybody involved believes they can win. The five biggest leagues in Europe have slowly been starting to resemble cornered markets for years now, and nothing has slowed this down, at all. Manchester City and Liverpool in England. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in Germany. Juventus in Italy. Barcelona and Real Madrid in Spain. PSG in France. And there are others, across the continent. A private monopoly or duopoly in each market.

Many of these clubs demonstrated flaws in the Champions League this year, though. Manchester City seemed to collectively forget that away goals remain really important against Spurs. Barcelona and Bayern were both blown away by Liverpool, Juventus by Ajax, and PSG lost their shit against Manchester United, a result which looks even worse with the benefit of hindsight than it did at the time. With levels of entitlement as high as they currently are, though, why should we even be surprised that the biggest clubs want to hive off access to the most lucrative European tournament to themselves?

This new hegemony isn’t, of course, entirely made up of champions, either. Real Madrid, Milan, Manchester United and others may be varying degrees short of able to win their own domestic leagues at the moment, but they have the means to still demand an invite to the top table. It isn’t about the football any more, remember. And an increasingly large and vocal section of the football-supporting public is now starting to come around to the viewpoint that perhaps it is time to let them go, to sail off into the distance with their European Super League, hoarding their money in a tiny pool of potential winners in perpetuity.  This is probably its logical conclusion. So is there any point in even continuing with the current set-up?

Of course, colonisers gonna colonise, so there would likely be a concerted attempted on the part whomever is invited to retain a place in their domestic leagues, deigning to grace the great unwashed with B teams, probably accompanied with some PR guff about “tradition”, even though these clubs clearly couldn’t give a fuck about tradition unless they can spin another dollar from it. This should be resisted. They’ve made their choices, and decided that they love winning more than competition. They’ve distorted the “market” to their will repeatedly over the years. They should be disconnected from everything else, from their domestic leagues, from UEFA competitions, from international football, the lot. Let them sail the waters of turbo-capitalism alone.

If that turns out to be the death of professional football as we currently understand it today, then so be it. Rip it up and start again. Turn it into a sport again, just another game that people can involve themselves with for love. We all know that, for so long as society exists in a form that we recognise today, there will be a football match going on somewhere. The football will continue to happen, in some form or another. All that might happen, with the right people in charge, is that we might well sit back one day and smile to ourselves about how stupid we were, in allowing so much money to pour into professional football, only to let an increasingly tiny number of clubs hoover up almost all of it, and how we stupid we were to become so enamoured with other people’s pursuit of money that we allowed the game to stop being properly competitive for reasons that still don’t fully make sense.

The Premier League seemed to understand that this fundamental inequality was bad for business. This is why it continues to insist upon collective bargaining for domestic television rights. Overseas television rights, however, have already been tweaked to benefit the biggest clubs more than anyone else, though, and it’s at least as likely as not that this will follow into a greater disparity in the dispersal of domestic rights in the future as well. The Premier League is, after all, little more than the combined will of its membership, and that membership is very different to two decades ago. It doesn’t care about maintaining an illusion of competition any more. If it did, the biggest clubs wouldn’t have been behaving in the ways in which they have for the last three decades or so.

Can elite level football survive on a procession of exhibition matches, dotted with the occasional struggle between two enormo-corps that we’ve seen in battle a million times before, though? Two years ago there was hushed talk that BT Sport had wildly overbid for Champions League rights because people weren’t really watching it that much, and that a large part of the reason for that was that the football simply wasn’t very competitive. They may have increased in the UK this season, due to a combination of English clubs being successful and a run of highly competitive matches in its latter stages.

Perhaps the volume of support that the biggest clubs enjoy will be able to sustain it on its own in the future. It’s likely that we’ll find out at some point over the next five years or so, and Manchester City are getting it in the neck right now, partly because they’re currently amongst its most successful proponents, but partly also because yes, people find the behaviour of their owners to be terrible on several different levels. They’re one of the most extreme examples of a phenomenon that has become more extreme over the years. The way in which they spent to get to the position in which they find themselves today was the most extreme. The sports-washing is the most extreme. And the level of success that they’re likely to achieve may well also be on its way to being the greatest, even if it’s not quite complete until thet lift the European Cup.

A decade ago, Manchester City were just another symptom of the financial disparity between the richest and the rest, and it is possible to have sympathy with the overwhelming desire to close that gap, to do whatever has to be done in order to close that gap. However, nothing stays the same over time, and Manchester City have ceased to be just a symptom any more. They’re now (also) a hugely visible and substantial part of the cause. The owners of the club weren’t ever interested in making football a more level playing field for anyone but themselves, and this should come as no surprise to the rest of us.

But it’s not just Manchester City, and to pretend otherwise is to ignore a bigger picture. The biggest European clubs have been chasing greater disparity for decades, and they’ve now got it. In England, though, irony is that those who were chasing it the longest and hardest – Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester United – haven’t really been the biggest beneficiaries of it on the pitch very much in recent years. And without a massive redistribution of television and prize money, FFP remains a fundamentally flawed idea which does look very much like elites of ten years seeking to consolidate their power base.

And that’s probably the ultimate takeaway from all of this. The shrill shrieking on social media, the growing gap between rich and poor, the fact that nothing has ever really been done to address the root cause of this problem, all of this predates the arrival of the Abu Dhabi group at Manchester City. They may well be a cause and a symptom these days, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other clubs who wouldn’t equally be as or more rapacious, if only they were better at winning football matches. But this isn’t about the others. Not this time.