The problem with Manchester City, as Arsene Wenger saw it, was not simply that they possessed an apparently bottomless well of wealth. It was that City were smart, too. “Petrol and ideas,” as Wenger, the former Arsenal manager, put it.
By the end, though, even he didn’t believe City’s success could be explained solely by their balance sheet. Their pre-eminence couldn’t have been achieved without the billion-plus pounds provided by their backers, but it wouldn’t have been so complete had that money not been spent so wisely.
The most obvious manifestation of that has been on the field: Pep Guardiola’s team won the Premier League last season with more points and more goals than any team in the modern era. When England’s national team reached the semifinals of the World Cup last summer, many credited Guardiola for helping to smooth the introduction of a more modern approach.
Off the field, though, the modern City have also become a point of reference to many. City Football Group, the umbrella organisation that owns City, has been consulted by the Chinese Super League on how to run its teams more sustainably. In the United States, in particular, Major League Soccer has made use of the vast database of information held by City’s recruitment department when assessing potential signings from minor European leagues.
Real Madrid executives told City’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, that it was not something they could copy — Real’s prestige would be diluted by franchising, they felt — but they admired the concept.
City will go into Sunday’s derby against Manchester United as a firm favourites; United, for so long the shadow City couldn’t escape, now seem the underdog.
On Tuesday, Guardiola was asked if the league as a whole would eventually suffer for City’s unimpeachable excellence.
“I don’t know,” he said, “if it’s a problem.” Similar success in the Champions League, the competition their executives cherish more than any other, has proved more elusive. City don’t need the trophy, though, to know that they has already joined Europe’s front rank. In the documents released by the opaque whistle-blowing platform Football Leaks to the German magazine Der Spiegel, five Premier League clubs were named as party to a plan to launch a breakaway European Super League — replacing the Champions League — starting in 2021. City was among them. The petrol, and the ideas, have brought City to the head table.
Those documents, though, have painted an entirely different picture of City from the one that had convinced so many of their opponents to follow their example.
The club has hardly made a secret of the fact they felt Financial Fair Play was a ruse concocted by the game’s traditional elite to keep upstarts like City and P.S.G. in their place. If City were trying to find a way around the rules, it was only because the rules were unfair.
Besides, even if the allegations are true, that does not change the fundamental truth, the one even Wenger recognized: That money alone is not enough.
There is, though, a broader issue here. Even as City — like P.S.G. — reportedly poured considerable time, effort and expense into breaking UEFA’s regulations, they were simultaneously meeting any threat of a punishment with ire and anger, contemplating whether any potential fine might be better spent on a legal team to take on, and crush, the organization levying it. When the sum they would be forced to pay was eventually decided, City could afford to declare that tens of millions of euros didn’t “materially affect” their business.
That is the true image cast by the revelations of the last week, one that has ramifications far beyond tribal self-interest: of not just one club, but of a whole host of them that believe the rules should be altered to fit their needs; of teams so inflated by success that they can now casually disregard the diktats of their governing bodies; of teams too big to fail, beyond control.
That’s what led City both to deceive and then disdain UEFA. It’s what led to the endless changes to the Champions League and the tweaks to domestic cup competitions and a series of bans for illegally approaching, or signing, young players: an essential arrogance, a disregard for consequence, a belief that might makes right. It’s what threatens the fundamental rupture in the fabric of the game reflected in that Bayern-concocted plot for a breakaway league that’d involve pulling players out of all international soccer, including the World Cup.
To turn a blind eye to that is to embrace a game that isn’t being run in the interests of the many, but the few, and a world where the quality of an idea is no match for a quantity of petrol.