Manchester City have joined the cartel - A Week in the City

That moral high ground is lost. We’re one of them. We’ve joined the cartel. We can no longer refer to them as “them” anymore. The club’s reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of City fans in a way that no article about Abu-Dhabi’s human rights abuses could ever do, and it has been entirely both avoidable and self-inflicted.
Author:
Updated:
Original:

I was going to write something about the shambles that was the FA Cup Semi-Final defeat to Chelsea and my frustrations regarding the way in which we went out, that being incredibly limply after parachuting in half the team which failed to beat a Leeds team with 10 men.

And then something else came along which is much more infuriating - talk of the European Super League went from a whisper to Florentino Perez walking through the streets of Switzerland outside UEFA’s headquarters, dressed head to toe in town crier gear and waving a bell around.

Hear ye, hear ye! Twelve European clubs have signed up for a European Super League! Proposed plans are to follow!

EzSg4hDVoAQ-lWY

Now, talk of this European Super League (hereby known as ESL because I can’t be bothered typing that out every time) are nothing new. It’s been in the offing for the best part of a decade, though it’s always felt like a thinly-veiled threat from the “super clubs”, Madrid, Barcelona, United, Liverpool, Bayern, to get UEFA to cave in to their various demands, both commercial and otherwise, within the Champions League.

However it’s never really gone this far. With plans officially being announced and an actual structure of a proposed league being created, with founding clubs being guaranteed a spot in the league no matter what every single year while others are given the privilege of being able to compete annually dependent on some qualification process of some kind, it’s looking much less like a threat and more like an actual plan to get things going.

The twelve clubs who have already signed up span across three countries - England, Spain and Italy. The usual suspects are there in the form of Liverpool, United, Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus. Joining them are Atlético Madrid, AC Milan, Inter, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs (yes, seriously) and, sadly, Manchester City.

For a brief moment it looked like we were the only club of the “big six” who had refused to sign the initial proposal. That idea was swiftly dashed when, less than an hour later, it emerged that we had actually joined up. Not long after, more details about this proposed league emerged and it became less and less apparent as to why we would sign up to a competition which appears to be run exclusively by the very people who encouraged UEFA to wrongly ban us from their competition just over a year ago.

This is the footballing equivalent of being given a prison sentence for a crime you didn’t commit and then, when your appeal is upheld and you are given your freedom, you decide to shack up with the policeman who planted the evidence that got you imprisoned.

On a political level, this makes absolutely no sense for Manchester City, especially as Khaldoon has apparently been seeking to repair the damaged relationship with UEFA in the aftermath of CAS. UEFA may have their issues, though it’s fair to say that the majority of them have stemmed from the fact that their Executive Board contains many of the same people who are now creating the ESL. At least the competition is fundamentally based on precisely that - competition. The ESL is not competition. It’s barely sport.

Of course, you only need to take one look at the Chairman/Vice Chairmen of the ESL to see exactly which clubs were the ultimate driving force behind this going ahead and it’s no coincidence that three of the five are Americans. These owners are from a country where relegation doesn’t exist - where the possibility of not being allowed to compete in the sport’s most prestigious competition doesn’t exist as long as you can pay your way in. The idea of your club being punished for having a bad season and not being granted access to the Champions League simply doesn’t compute in their minds.

They’ve already been pushing, alongside the Milan clubs and others, for some kind of extra seeding for the tournament to be handed out based on “historical merit”, which is just yet another way of saying that, no matter how shit your club is performing, if you used to be good then you have permanent access to the gravy train. It’s a level of Americanisation which simply doesn’t work in football and should never exist within it.

A cursory glance at the current state of Stan Kroenke’s Arsenal, sitting mid-table in the league having not participated in the Champions League since 2016. The state of John Henry’s Liverpool, who have been by no means regulars in the Champions League since their arrival and look like they’re in real danger of ending their title-defending season outside of the top four, and the Glazers’ Manchester United who have only qualified for the Champions League three times (not including this season) since Ferguson retired.

Why invest in addressing the problems at your own club when you can just lobby to change the entire structure of football?

Look beyond the American owners at Chair level. Florentino Perez is the President of Real Madrid, a club who are well documented to be facing some financial issues this summer off the back of a covid season. Andrea Agnelli, Chairman of Juventus, is begging clubs to take Ronaldo’s wages off the club’s hands because of financial strain and his team is currently sitting 4th in the table behind Atalanta, with Andrea Pirlo in charge and seemingly no sensible transfer strategy in place, bringing players in on dodgy swap deals like Arthur and Danilo. Virtually everybody at the top table of this ESL is in a weak position domestically. I wonder what the motivation could possibly be?

Back to Manchester City and their involvement and I’m incredibly disappointed. Frankly, I’m disgusted. I fully understand that, if they were legitimately the last to “reluctantly” sign up for this, then they may have felt that, on a commercial level, they were simply left with no choice. If there’s a chance that this tournament goes ahead, City can’t afford, on a fiscal level, to not be one of those teams that gets their guaranteed windfall of money every single year as a permanent fixture in the league. As a pure business move, I fully understand the reasoning behind doing so and respect that they may not have been one of the leading decision-makers behind it.

sipa_32771341

Now, with that extremely generous caveat out of the way, they’ve still let us down as fans. Not a single fan, at any time that the ESL has been proposed, has ever expressed an interest in it. No Manchester City fan wants it. We’re still booing the Champions League anthem whenever it plays before games, do they really think we’re going to be enamoured with the idea of a new league which is owned and run by the same shady owners who’ve had it in for us since we dared to barge our way onto the scene a decade ago?

Even if you take out the factor of the people who are behind the ESL, that becomes completely irrelevant in the context of what this represents and it’s exactly the same thing that FFP has represented since its inception - the drawbridge is being pulled up and shutting out everybody who isn’t already at the top, only now we're the ones pulling on the chain. We as City fans have been condemning this kind of anti-competitive behaviour from UEFA since it was brought in, and the club have been doing so privately as well, yet now they have become part of the very problem they have been complaining about.

There are some fans who are more cynical than myself (which takes some doing) who think that Ferran Soriano and our ownership will have been pushing for this as well and, honestly, I really don’t think we will have. Yes, I’m sure our club is more than happy to make more money if it’s available and we’ll happily go along with any plans should they go ahead, simply because we don’t want to be the club that misses out on the extra revenue our rivals are going to make.

sipa_29173330

However, City are in a unique financial situation in terms of English football, and even across European football on the whole. United are consistently hamstrung by their ownership model. Sure, they can still spend big because of the sheer size of their wealth and sponsorship income, but they’re by no means spending as much as they could if the Glazers were willing to invest. FSG have been playing moneyball ever since they arrived and attempted to furlough their staff this time last year - not exactly a sign that they’re planning on dropping £200m into the transfer kitty this summer. Chelsea have an owner who is only half interested in them after being all but exiled from the country his club resides in. We have absolutely no reason to be giving the green light to a league which doubles, or even trebles, the revenues of our rivals. They have far more to gain from this than we do. Which makes the decision to sack it all off and support their decision all the more embarrassing. 

The real disappointment is that, no matter our reasons for signing up, it is clear from the fact that PSG and Bayern Munich have abstained from doing so that the option to protest it was available to us. Bayern Munich especially are a club who have always been seen as one of the “cartel” at the top brass of UEFA, yet they have decided not to sign the initial agreement on the ESL. Whether this is guided by principle or preservation of PR (I doubt it would go over well in Germany given the 51% fan ownership rule), I there’s not a single Bayern fan who is disappointed to see that they’ve steered clear of the ESL (for now). As for PSG, they’ve spent the last decade cultivating a good relationship with UEFA, playing the game and getting their owner, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, on the Executive Board at UEFA. It would be dumb to throw that relationship potentially in jeopardy by signing up for something which may well not come to fruition, with a long legal battle ahead still to be won to get this league going.

This time last year, I, along with every City fan, was begging for the downfall of UEFA. We were outraged at the ban we had received at the behest of the cartel and we didn’t just want Khaldoon and the club’s legal team to take down the case, we wanted to bring down FFP and UEFA along with it. The problem is that we may have actually succeeded.

There’s no doubt that the mob of self-proclaimed super clubs who pushed for City’s initial ban will have been enraged to see it overturned, even more so when they will have discovered that it was UEFA’s own time-barring which saw it fail. It was potentially at this point when the ESL became less of a threat and accelerated into more of a promise as these owners perceived themselves to be governed by an organisation which was incapable of enforcing its own rules.

sipa_32730710

I want to believe that this is just a mad power play from these clubs to get UEFA to cave and accept their “historical achievement” demands, and no doubt some others besides, but these clubs are serious. It’s all well and good floating the idea around in the media and in backhanded meetings to scare UEFA, but actually coming together and signing an official proposal, securing financial backing by J.P. Morgan, the twelve clubs abandoning the European Club Association, it all feels like everything is being put in place to remove the shackles of UEFA.

Thankfully, mercifully, every single organisation across football seems to be dead against it. The Premier League, along with the rest of the domestic leagues, has issued a statement condemning the plans and made it very clear that anybody who took part in such a competition would be banned from all domestic competition. UEFA have, naturally, come out strongly against it, calling the plans a “cynical project, a project that is founded on the self-interest of a few clubs at a time when society needs solidarity more than ever.” Even the British Government has come out against it.

Now, far be it from me to believe that UEFA (or a Conservative Government for that matter) legitimately have the best interests of the footballing world at heart rather than their own self-serving motives, yet I find myself in a situation where I am siding with UEFA against my own club. This is quite the plot twist given where we found ourselves only a year ago.

Gary Neville went on a rant during his coverage on Sky Sports which has already gone viral and, despite the obvious irony involved with the message coming from somebody who works for Sky, a company which charges extortionate amounts of money on a monthly basis to fans for the privilege of watching (pre-covid) four games a weekend with no guarantee that your own team will be one of them and is therefore a large factor behind the monetisation of the game and has facilitated the rampant capitalism within the Premier League which has made it both a success and also a home to some of the most parasitic owners in world football, he had a lot of good points.

However, to say that this is unprecedented is hilariously wrong. The big clubs threatening to break away is a large part of the reason that the Premier League became structured in the way it was, securing higher broadcast revenues for the established clubs and allowing the likes of United to cement their place at the top of English football for the next couple of decades. In that sense, these new proposals really aren’t that new at all, though this is on a gross scale which has not been seen before.

Should the absolute worst case scenario happen and they go ahead with this league, choosing to abandon the domestic league in the process, I’m not going to be able to support my club anymore. Even if some miracle happens and they somehow manage to stay within the Premier League alongside this new ESL, I’ll have no interest in that league and the club will be so tainted for having even attempted it that I'll have mentally switched off to a large degree I’m one of the fans who’s got very little love for the Champions League (though I refrain from booing at the games) but this competition will mean even less to me. It rewards mediocrity based on nothing more than name alone. It does not incentivise improvement. It provides the privileged few with more wealth than any club in the domestic league can possibly hope to accrue. It ruins the domestic leagues and helps to give the “big six” in the Premier League an even bigger helping hand than they already receive.

What disappoints me more is that, in the midst of all this back-door dealing and underhanded pushing through of agendas at Executive Board level of UEFA, I’ve always felt like City have had a bit of a moral high ground in that arena (I’m sure non-City fans are laughing at the idea of City having a moral high ground). We've always been the outsiders, the ones challenging those who don't like the way we're doing things and there's been a lot of satisfaction to take as a fan from that.

When “Project Big Picture” was being pushed through by John Henry and the Glazers, threatening to dismantle the structure of English football and secure greater revenues for those at the top of the table in a way which is even more out of whack than it currently is, as a City fan I could sit back and condemn them, knowing my club had not been part of the conversation.

Now, however, that moral high ground is lost. We’re one of them. We’ve joined the cartel. We can no longer refer to them as “them” anymore. The club’s reputation has been tarnished in the eyes of City fans in a way that no article about Abu-Dhabi’s human rights abuses could ever do, and it has been entirely both avoidable and self-inflicted.

42536169

What’s worse is that we’ve joined them without having any power in it, no stake in it, no real say at the very top of the organisation. We’re at the mercy of the same merry band of bastards who've been kicking themselves for not drawing up Financial Fair Play plans quickly enough to stop us from getting in. It’s the most stupid, pathetic and naïve decision we could possibly make, even if you choose to ignore how fundamentally wrong it is. We’ve allowed ourselves to be cuckolded by the very people who've been begging for us to be removed from the room since we arrived.

The statement on the club website included quotes from Joel Glazer, Manchester United’s owner, with no words from anybody within our own club. It was a copy and pasted quote which every club involved had replicated on their own websites. I'm writing this within half an hour of the statement having gone on the website and they're currently the only club of the twelve not to have tweeted their statement out, no doubt fully aware of the sheer amount of backlash it would receive and hoping that every other English club will sponge the abuse before they do so.

It’s a cowardly, pathetic, disgusting move. The club (and the rest of the ESL) has chosen a time where fans are incapable of going to stadiums and are utterly voiceless, at least on a visceral level, to announce these plans. They have chosen the path of least resistance.

Since the takeover in 2008, it’s fair to say the club have got things wrong. Annual ticket price increases despite the club’s vast wealth and steadily rising TV revenues. Little to no access to players and club staff from fan media, making them often seem distant. Sitting back when relentless negative news stories attack the club, letting the fans do their PR work for them (and take the brunt of the criticism from the media in doing so). Signing Wilfried Bony. Yet none have made me ever feel like they’ve alienated the fanbase. These are all just business decisions which I disagree with.

This, however, makes me feel like me and my club fundamentally do not align. What we both want are very different things. I want to watch us win stuff, I want us to be rewarded for our success on and off the pitch in the form of trophies and competing in the highest levels of competition. I don’t want to see us get a free pass to a brand new European League every year, sacking off an existing European competition that, whilst I might not be in love with it, has a lot of history and prestige behind it.

We like to naively think that our football clubs represent us. That the owners of our club care about what we think, that there is a small part of them, despite the money, which is aligned with fans’ voices and won’t make fundamental changes if we raise our voices loudly enough. This completely rips that idea to shreds.

39912260

In the "best case scenario" that the clubs all bottle it and decide to abandon all hopes of the ESL, it won't matter. It’s too late, these clubs have shown their hand. And City are one of them. We all know what these clubs want and it’s money above all else, no matter what the cost.

If it were to come to the crunch and Manchester City were to choose to leave domestic football behind in pursuit of this league of Harlem Globetrotters then, frankly, I’ll find somebody else to support. Football, for me, is great because local clubs with 100+ years of history and community significance compete in sport. It’s the perfect mix of communal activity, competition and entertainment. Obviously the game has grown to a global level where those communities have expanded and grown beyond Moss Side and Eastlands, though the traditional roots remain.

Take those clubs away from the domestic competitions, remove them from the most fundamental of competitions on a local basis and parachute them into a world tour for the highest bidders, playing against Real Madrid in Qatar before flying over to Saudi Arabia for a Manchester derby, and football becomes a hollow shell of what it used to be. Substance and meaning make way for $2,000 tickets to watch El Clásico in Atlanta.

I can live with capitalism leading to rising transfer fees. I can live with Mino Raiola and other super-agents having a worrying level of influence over where players move to and often pricing clubs out of moves for their transfer targets. I can deal with players earning more in a month than I’ll earn in a lifetime. These things are just natural incremental increases of things which, for the most part, have already existed for decades. Supply and demand.

This is not supplying any demand. No fan wants this. No fan is asking for this.

I'm a relatively young fan. I'm in my late-20s. I supported them as much as I could as a child whose only access to them was Match of the Day highlights, but I didn't have the ability to watch football outside of terrestrial TV (my parents didn't have a Sky subscription) until the streaming phenomenon came about after we'd already been taken over. This level of top level performance and success, in terms of regular viewing, is all I've ever known.

Think of the fans who watched us back when we were in the third division. Those who watched us win the league only to be relegated the following season. There is already a huge swathe of older generations of fans who feel like they've lost touch with what the club has become, who feel like it's not for them anymore. If this is how I feel after seeing this news, imagine what somebody in their 70s must be feeling right now.

We've always prided ourselves on knowing where we came from. We've gone from the bottom to the top so rapidly that the vast majority of our fan base can remember us at our lowest. It's honestly felt like the club, from a PR perspective, has always been at great pains to make it known that they understand this too. They've embraced it on many occasions. If we sack off the domestic competitions and join this soulless organisation, it'll all be irrelevant. It might as well be a brand new club.

I know that there are probably fans of Bury who will come across this and think this is all very hyperbolic and dramatic. Obviously Manchester City still exists, they haven't been liquidated, but I have no interest in following them if this is going to be how I'm expected to do it. Knowing that this is what your club thinks football should be is a soul-destroying realisation.

39910107

All of the threatening statements from UEFA, FIFA, the various FAs, they're all meaningless. Every club that's signed up for this competition knows what they're getting into, they knew they'd have legal challenges to face to get this competition off the ground. They're almost certainly more than willing to take that risk.

At the very least, I hope City see sense and understand that the domestic competitions far outrank any fantasies of Super Leagues and local derbies being played thousands of miles away from an M1 postcode. If they don’t then I’ll legitimately be losing a large part of my life and my weekly happiness to nothing more than illogical, unnecessary greed.

If they do decide to back down? Well, I don't know. That's a personal dilemma I can't wrap my head around in a matter of hours.

This club isn't just what I do on weekends. I write these articles for my enjoyment. I host a weekly podcast on 9320 because I love doing it. I've had thoughts of getting into the YouTube side of things one day. It's a large part of my social activity. All of it potentially down the drain, and for what? A bit of extra money for a club which is bankrolled by one of the richest men on the planet?

If City insist on taking this path, I’m going to have to try and support Oldham. And Oldham are shit, so I really don’t want to have to do that. I fear it might be too late.


You can follow Joe on Twitter here: @joebutters