In May 2018, Matthew Hedges, a British PhD candidate at Durham University, was arrested in Abu Dhabi and accused of spying. Last November, in a hearing lasting less than five minutes, he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Maybe he was guilty, maybe he wasn’t, but what was obvious was that there had been a manifest absence of due process. British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt called the situation “extremely worrying” and said “no evidence” had been offered to back up the charges. After an international outcry, Hedges was pardoned five days later. But in those five days, something extraordinary happened: significant numbers of Manchester City fans on social media came out in support of the legal system of Abu Dhabi.
This is so bizarre it’s worth reiterating. A proportion of supporters of a football club in the north-west of England decided to back the flawed legal apparatus of an oppressive regime 4,500 miles away against a British man who, whether he had been spying or not, had been treated appallingly for six months. This is sportswashing in action: the Abu Dhabi state had funded the Pep Guardiola revolution and so had to be supported in all matters, including possible human rights abuses.
As City prepares for an FA Cup final against Watford in which it could win an unprecedented domestic treble, the issue has reared its head again. Earlier in the week, the New York Times reported that City was facing a potential one-year ban from the Champions League for misleading investigators looking into a possible breach of Financial Fair Play regulations. Sure enough, on Thursday, UEFA referred the matter to the Club Financial Control Body’s adjudicatory chamber.
City responded with a robust statement condemning the “leaks” that had preceded the announcement and insisting that its financial affairs were in order, but making no reference to the allegation of misleading investigators. City fans responded by abusing the journalist who broke the story, the estimable Tariq Panja, and creating incredible conspiracy theories based around the fact that the New York Times used to hold shares in Fenway Sports Group, the owner of Liverpool.
There are a number of intertwined strands here that are worth teasing out. Firstly, there is that of FFP itself. You may think it’s daft, anti-competitive legislation. You may think that if it has a purpose, it’s to prevent a club spending beyond its means and risking bankruptcy, something that clearly doesn’t apply to an emirate willing to gift vast sums to the club it owns. You may even think the regulations would not stand up to legal challenge. But if a club has signed up for the regulations, as City did, it can’t then complain if it faces sanctions for breaking them.
Then there’s the desire to shoot the messenger, common practice in today's global climate. Blame “leaks,” imagine conspiracies and ignore the fact that the story was proved true within 48 hours.
And then, most disturbingly, there’s City’s response, which suggested something about the general ethos around the club. This week, the club also had to react to a video that’s circulated of its players celebrating their Premier League title with a song that mocked Liverpool and could be construed as making reference to Sean Cox, the fan left in a coma after being attacked by Roma fans before the Champions League semifinal last year, and the Hillsbrough disaster, in which 96 Liverpool fans died.
Taunting rivals after you’ve won the title isn’t a great look, but it’s extremely unlikely any of the players intended any offense. City could have dealt with the matter with a simple apology–sorry, didn’t mean it, let us make a donation to some relevant charity–but instead issued an aggressive statement insisting no reference to Cox or Hillsborough had been intended. Which begs the question, just what did the lines “battered in the street” and “victims of it all” refer to?
The attitude of City in all matters appears to be that it can do no wrong, and the truth is that it has the resources to pay for the lawyers who may be able to prove it. That places club employees and fans in a difficult position. Of course, as a player you want to play for a club playing extraordinary football and you may not be overly concerned by the source of the money that pays your wages. Most people make similar compromises every day, whether it is who you work for, who you bank with, where you buy your groceries or whatever. City is certainly not the only club with morally dubious owners.
And of course, City fans want to enjoy the first sustained success in their club’s history. But you do wonder why so many seem to feel that their fandom must be absolute. It’s entirely possible to be a City fan while feeling uncomfortable about the ownership of the club, just as it’s entirely possible for outsiders to admire their football but to regret the nature of the funding that made it possible.
Man City has been brilliant this season, just as it was last season, but off-field issues are beginning to cloud what is happening on the field.