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19 February 2020updated 25 Jul 2021 3:28pm

Manchester City, the model of a global super-club, once struggled to be noticed, never mind banned

The club has never quite managed to shed the rags of restless victimhood.

By Jonathan Liew

In the hours after it was announced on 14 February that Manchester City had been sanctioned for breaches of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) legislation, a viral meme emerged reading “Welcome to Banchester”. The reference, of course, was to the famous “Welcome to Manchester” billboard, erected by the club in the city centre in 2009 to taunt Manchester United over signing Carlos Tevez from their local rivals. Now, with City facing a two-year ban from the Champions League and their world on the verge of caving in, the retort came.

At the time, the poster seemed to capture a very particular mood of insurgency in the blue half of Manchester, one in which the upstart City were not so much in a position to challenge United’s supremacy as still trying to get themselves noticed. The Abu Dhabi-based owners that bought the club in 2008 had been in charge for less than a year. City finished the season tenth in the Premier League. And when United manager Alex Ferguson was asked whether his side would ever go into a Manchester derby as underdogs, he fixed his questioner with a cold stare, and the words: “Not in my lifetime.”

We all saw what happened next. It would be fewer than two seasons before City ended their 35-year trophy drought by winning the 2011 FA Cup. The following year, they pipped United to the league title with the last kick of the season (after which Tevez, never one to forget a slight, held aloft a banner bearing the words “RIP FERGIE”). There would be another league title under Manuel Pellegrini in 2014, a historic 100-point season under Pep Guardiola in 2018, a domestic treble in 2019, and along the way some of the greatest football and footballers ever seen on British pitches. The club’s owners would establish a world-leading recruitment and scouting operation and a trophy-laden women’s team, as well as an unprecedented network of satellite clubs on five continents.

Throughout all this, however, the club has never quite managed to shed the rags of restless victimhood. No matter how many trophies or accolades they accumulate, no matter how much wealth or happiness they generate, talk to most City fans – or even people inside the club itself – and they will tell you unequivocally that someone, somewhere, has it in for them. Often it’s the media, which tends to be dominated by former United or Liverpool players. Often it’s the European footballing establishment, the traditional big clubs whose noses have been put out of joint by City’s brass and brashness. Occasionally, the grievance takes on a more sinister note: witness City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak’s faintly opportunistic suggestion last year that hostility towards the club was driven by anti-Arab racism. 

Most of all, though, City reserve their ire for the administrators, which is why Uefa’s decision fits so neatly into their prevailing world-view. It was telling that City’s immediate response to Uefa’s sanction was not to address the substance of the charge – that the club’s owners had artificially inflated its commercial revenue over a number of years, and failed to cooperate with Uefa’s investigation – but to discredit the entire process. “Disappointed but not surprised,” was its verdict, adding that it would appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in pursuit of an “impartial” judgement. 

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This response is very much in step with the modus operandi of the ownership: never apologise, never explain, always deflect, always attack. And City’s bellicosity may yet pay off: in leaked emails Khaldoon is quoted as telling Uefa during its first investigation into FFP breaches in 2012/13 that he was prepared to “spend £30m on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue [Uefa] for the next ten years”. Yet even under the most optimistic prognosis the future will be turbulent. Guardiola is committed for now, but many of the club’s best players will be pondering their options. A squad that was already in need of a rebuild may have to do so in a financial straitjacket and without the lure of Champions League football. Meanwhile, City’s glorious decade now comes with an asterisk, the indelible taint of financial doping.

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Was it worth it, then? The mathematics of cheating are never quite as straightforward as is often assumed. Bans can be imposed, fines levied, prizes reallocated, reputations besmirched, and yet there will always be a part of the sporting experience that retrospective justice can never touch. It is, indeed, one of the most powerful incentives for cheating: not the performance gain, or the financial reward, but the magic moment. No edict can ever unmake the joy of Sergio Aguero’s title-winning goal against QPR in 2012, or Vincent Kompany’s scintillating winner against Leicester in 2019, or the pleasurable hours spent watching Kevin de Bruyne, David Silva or Yaya Touré.

In the meantime, the entire culture of the club has been remade, its history rewritten, its identity redefined, its frames of reference recalibrated. The balance of power in Manchester has been upended; where once it was United who were market leaders on and off the field, now City are the template for the modern super-club: the game’s dominating force, the biggest sporting story on the planet. It’s a common misconception among City fans that FFP was dreamed up specifically to thwart them: the legislation was in train years before the Abu Dhabi takeover. But it was shaped by their presence and expedited by their success, and it is against City that its worth will now be tested. 

For a club whose sole objective a decade ago was to be taken seriously, perhaps this is what triumph looks like. Perhaps the reason City are so haughtily defiant in the face of ruin isn’t because of what they stand to lose. Perhaps it’s because they’ve already won.

This article appears in the 19 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The age of pandemics