By Raphael Honigstein
December 09, 2011

MANCHESTER -- Ivica Olic was slightly limping at the late-night banquet in Manchester's Worsley Park hotel but still smiling when a reporter asked him about his running battle with Man City defender Stefan Savic a couple of hours earlier. "Big problems," the Bayern Munich striker said in broken German, before smiling even more. His foot was hurting from a kick by Savic in the opening minutes but it obviously didn't seem to matter all that much. Olic got his retaliation in by elbowing Savic into the advertising board a little later and was duly booked for his troubles.

That little skirmish between neighbors from the Balkans was the only edgy moment in the game, however. Apart from some halfhearted boos for old boy Jérôme Boateng by the surprisingly docile Etihad crowd, emotions ran decidedly low. Bayern, who had turned up with a B team, didn't care all that much and neither did City by the time the disheartening news filtered through from Villarreal. Napoli's 2-0 win in Spain rendered City's defeat of Bayern by the same score immaterial for both parties.

All the visitor talk about proving a point, about trying to take home the €800,000 ($1.06M) UEFA gives out for a win in the group stage certainly seemed forgotten. Coach Jupp Heynckes stressed the importance of Sunday's tough Bundesliga away game at Stuttgart while players like Mario Gomez and Thomas Müller, who were supposedly suffering with flu were happily mingling with friends and colleagues in the bowels of the stadium and later on in the team hotel.

Bayern's CEO summed up the prevailing mood nicely in his speech, when he named the winner of result prediction among the traveling sponsors. "He tipped 2-0 for City," said Karl-Heinz Rummenigge to some ironic boos, adding, jokingly: "Perhaps he knew the lineup."

In other words, there was very little to suggest that this was anything other than a routine night for the Bavarian champions. The pre-match buildup had promised so much more. Rummenigge's repeated criticism of what he perceives as "financial doping" by the Abu Dhabi-financed City and his demand for "tough sanctions" by UEFA if the upstarts were to fail the new Financial Fair Play regulations had unnerved City coach Roberto Mancini. "I don't know why he needs to talk about us for six months, I don't know what his problems is with us," said the Italian, agreeing with a reporter who suggested that Rummenigge's intervention was evidence of "fear and jealousy" on behalf of the elite. "I will ask him (when I see him) what he means," Mancini said on Tuesday.

There was no off-the-pitch showdown, however. Relations between the officials remained cordial throughout. The pre-match rhetoric was precisely that, no more. In any case the argument between the two clubs is strictly political, not personal.

From Bayern's perspective, City is a convenient example of all that's gone wrong in modern soccer. Here's a club, owned by a sheik, spending crazy sums of money that it cannot regenerate itself. City just announced losses of nearly £200 million ($312M) for 2010/11, a record amount for the Premier League. Even though City insists it is on course to meet UEFA's complicated Financial Fair Play regulations (FFP), Rummenigge, the head of the European Club Association, suspects that the club is simply riding roughshod over the regulations in the hope to get away with it.

As far as Bayern is concerned, City has taken over where Chelsea left off when Roman Abramovich reigned in the spending and became distracted by a $5.5 billion law suit. The club has become shorthand for out of control, unsustainable spending and is now seen as the main factor driving wage and transfer fee inflation in Europe.

Why is Bayern so upset? Base notions of jealousy and/or fear probably do play a part, at some level, but the Bavarians care more about the principle. As a club that is majority-owned by its members, governed by an elected president and run like any other medium-sized company -- with a need to at least break even every year -- Bayern tends to adopt the mentality of a family-run, traditional corner-shop that sees its way of life threatened by a big, brash supermarket that is selling its wares below cost across the street. As the biggest, most successful club in the Bundesliga, it understands the principles of professional sport and economies of scale perfectly well. But that understanding doesn't extend to fighting a battle against an opponent that doesn't play by the rules (of good accounting). That's where the idea of fairness or "equality of weapons" (Rummenigge) stems from.

Whether you accept that argument depends, to a large extent, on your view of professional sport. Should it be the equivalent of social Darwinism, a survival of the fittest, success by any means necessary? Or should there be limitations, artificial hurdles and instruments to tone down the natural differences between the participants? FFP does not envisage a level playing field. But it makes an honest attempt to introduce checks and balances that act as a stealth salary cap and in turn bring an element of sport and competition back into the sport.

It would be preposterous to allow clubs to buy players during a game, so why should a club be able to buy a £50 million striker when it has no money left in the bank? Big teams can get their tactics and lineups wrong and lose to an underdog, so why should they not pay the price when they get their finances and squads wrong, too? FFP decreases the margin of error by removing excess money from the system. Clubs will be forced to spend more carefully and smarter, and there's a good chance we'll see a recent Serie A trend replicated. Smaller, less wealthier clubs are beginning to hold their own against bigger clubs who have woken up to the credit crunch.

But there's another side to the coin, obviously. City are quite happy to rebut Bayern's criticism publicly because the Bavarians' very existence proves a useful point. Beating nouveau riche clubs like City with the FFP stick, the Mancunians (and others) say, is just meant to protect the existing status quo, by closing off investor-led shortcuts to the big time. To be sure, Mancini et al have to be careful how to phrase that rebuttal because they are in fact beneficiaries of the changes -- if the theory is correct.

It'll certainly be interesting to see how things play out once the regulations start to bite in earnest. In the meantime, "Bayern vs. City" is such a convenient debate for both parties that it will continue to simmer, as a kind phony war, in the absence of any real matches or another Savic/Olic duel.

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