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14 February 2023

Football remains spectacular, but the trust between clubs and the public is broken

The game’s richest teams have disfigured the economic terrain of the sport – but a reckoning is on the horizon.

By Jonathan Liew

So if Manchester City didn’t win, who did? In the alternate reality of English football, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is a Premier League champion, having led Manchester United to an unlikely title in 2021. So is Brendan Rodgers, who ended Liverpool’s drought in 2014. That same season, Everton qualify for the Champions League, earning them a substantial financial windfall and allowing them to attract some of the best players in Europe. Perhaps now they are one of the powerhouses of the sport, rather than a listing ship desperately fighting relegation to the Championship.

On 6 February, the Premier League announced that it was pursuing Manchester City for more than 100 alleged breaches of financial rules going back to 2009 – essentially, accusing it of cheating for the past 14 years. On one level this is a process story about accounting practices, financial reporting, alleged payments to players and staff via third parties. And yet it is a case that strikes at the essence of the game itself.

City have denied any wrongdoing. Similar charges were brought by Uefa in 2020 and later thrown out by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But really, this is an issue that goes beyond legal semantics, that goes beyond City or indeed any single club. Whether City broke a Premier League rule is, in the grand scheme of things, not that relevant. The schism here is not regulatory but emotional. What, exactly, have we been watching this whole time?

This has been an era of extraordinary quality and unimaginable thrills at the top of men’s football. It has been an era defined by players such as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Kylian Mbappé, by the global popularity of the sport, by the fervid interest in competitions like the World Cup and the Champions League. But it has also been an era fuelled and funded by unprecedented and often unaccountable wealth, by a growing gap between the richest and poorest, by the exploitation of a weak regulatory framework by those with the power to do so. And there are signs that a reckoning may be on the horizon.

After all, City are by no means the only mega-club to run into legal problems. Juventus, who won nine consecutive Italian titles between 2012 and 2020, have been deducted 15 points by an Italian court for falsely inflating the value of players and misrepresenting losses for accounting purposes. They intend to appeal, but the scandal has already forced the entire board to resign. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) – the club of Messi, Mbappé and Neymar, were one of eight clubs fined last year for breaking Uefa financial rules. Chelsea’s reliance on the tainted cash of Roman Abramovich ended when he was sanctioned by the UK government over his ties with Vladimir Putin, forcing him to sell up.

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Together, football’s richest clubs have spent the past two decades disfiguring the economic terrain of the sport: inflating transfer fees with lavish spending, forcing smaller clubs into subservience or irrelevance, unbalancing domestic leagues to the point where many are now dominated by just one or two clubs. This was the alternate reality: a dreamscape built on carnivorous wealth and hard power, funded by hedge funds and oligarchs and some of the most repressive regimes on Earth.

The point isn’t necessarily that any of this was illicit or underhand. On the contrary: football’s engorgement by the super-rich has often occurred in full collaboration with the authorities, enabled by regulation so flimsy as to be essentially non-existent. The takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, for example, was encouraged by the Boris Johnson government and waved through by the Premier League despite considerable objections. For years Barcelona and Real Madrid illegally benefited from millions of euros of Spanish state subsidies in the form of tax breaks and soft loans. This was the money that paid for Messi and Ronaldo, upon which an entire chapter of football’s mythology was built.

Was any of it real? The show was spectacular. But the ideas underpinning organised sport since its inception – a rules-based order, a dynamic ecosystem defined by mobility and athletic virtue, a bond of trust between the pitch and the public – have been blown apart. If football in the first quarter of the 21st century was an expression of the same voracious capitalist impulses operating in the wider world, then what was the point of it?

What does it mean that City won six titles in a decade by buying the best talent in the sport and picking off their smaller rivals? Of what use is it to anyone that PSG and Bayern Munich keep winning their respective league titles year after year? And – more pertinently – what will future generations make of this era? Will it be football’s equivalent of road cycling in the 1990s or athletics in the 1970s and 1980s, a lawless free-for-all that provided unfettered entertainment but perverted the essence of the sport as it did so? Will it all one day be asterisked?

Perhaps we delude ourselves if we believe that organised sport has ever been a genuine meritocracy untouched by established wealth and power. But sport only works if the public can trust what it is watching. The reason doping and fixing are so toxic to the idea of competitive sport is because they shatter that bond of trust. Is financial doping or a rigged market any more palatable? Football’s popularity suggests it is. Posterity may take a different view.

Read more:

Expected Goals review: Football’s data delusion

The tragedy of English football

The football transfer market has become a soap opera

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This article appears in the 15 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Why the right is losing everywhere