On Friday night, Manchester City take on Real Madrid in their much-delayed return fixture in the Uefa Champions League, European football’s most prestigious competition. The contest is the sort of match everyone associated with City dreamt about when the club was bought by Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008.
Madrid are the most successful side in the history of the Champions League. City, famously, have been unable to match their recent domestic success with a European crown.
Maybe this year, the strangest of them all, is the one to end City's 50-year pursuit of a second European trophy, following their success in the 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup on a rainy night in Vienna.
Maybe it's not, although those who support the club, including me, know that whatever happens on Friday, City will be back next season after overturning a ban on competing in European football, which had been imposed by Uefa in February.
Last month the club's tough stance over alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play regulations and licensing was vindicated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which threw out a proposed two-year ban and significantly reduced a fine that had been levied for reportedly not co-operating. Earlier this year, chief executive Ferran Soriano said that the allegations were “simply not true”. He has been proved right.
The publication of the full CAS report a few days ago unleashed a torrent of partisan commentary on its findings.
Those who dislike City say that the club have somehow got away with it, while those who support the club point to the report's conclusions that the two key allegations were for the most part “not established” and in some cases “time barred”. In essence, a weak case fell apart under scrutiny from an independent body.
The burden for proving the offences always rested with Uefa, who made the rules in the first place and who prosecuted the case. And yet, some of the commentary on the report would lead you to think the verdict delivered a different outcome.
Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool's manager, said it was a “not a good day for football” when asked about the CAS verdict last month. On Sunday, Oliver Kahn, a Bayern Munich board member, said that FFP should be taken “more seriously” in the future, appearing to suggest that a Uefa-run process and a subsequent appeal to an independent body was not sufficient. Others joined the chorus line of critics.
No wonder some City fans bristle with fury at such words, particularly when there are murky moments in many of the European elite’s past, ranging from match-fixing scandals to tax evasion and serious incidents of crowd violence. Others have sins forgiven or forgotten, while City have not even had an apology.
But really this is not about a legal challenge, it is about a particular perspective.
Outsiders worry that success is assured for anyone in football with money to invest. That is a neat fantasy. The reality was that everything was broken at City before the takeover. The strategies that were developed to get the club back on its feet came with no guarantees.
The game’s established elite, meanwhile, jealously guard the gates to their kingdom against arrivistes.
Last week, the protracted takeover of Newcastle United by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, PCP Capital Partners and Reuben Brothers collapsed. The consortium had been waiting for months for clearance by the Premier League and apparently lost patience.
In Europe’s top leagues, Bayern Munich have won eight consecutive league titles in Germany, while Juventus have claimed nine in a row in Italy and Real Madrid and Barcelona have lifted 16 out of the past 17 Primera Liga titles
There are similarities in the ambitions of those who sought to buy Newcastle and those who have transformed City, in the sense that the prospective new owners talked about wholesale regeneration both on and off the pitch.
While one of the reasons cited for the failure of the takeover was a changing economic landscape – “time itself became an enemy of the transaction”, a statement said in reference to the ongoing pandemic – the authorities have dragged their heels over the deal and now, without any end to the process in sight, it has become untenable. Tens of thousands of Newcastle supporters have signed a petition campaigning for the Premier League to be investigated over the takeover’s collapse.
The reasons for its failure may be complicated, but there is also a sense that some of the top clubs in England don’t like the idea of another challenger to their crown. Just as in Europe, a few clubs would rather share the spoils among themselves.
In Europe’s top leagues, Bayern Munich have won eight consecutive league titles in Germany, while Juventus have claimed nine in a row in Italy and Real Madrid and Barcelona have lifted 16 out of the past 17 Primera Liga titles. At least one of those four clubs has appeared in 10 of the last 11 Champions League finals.
English football has always enjoyed a more open playing field. Despite plenty of TV money flowing towards a few sides, four different clubs have won the Premier League in the past five years. Thirty years ago, when a breakaway division was first mooted in England, the so-called “big five” clubs sought to dominate talks and finance. Two of that group, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton, haven’t won a title in decades.
Unfortunately, suspicion and jealousy drive many of the partisan impulses in modern football. A willingness to invest and build is too often misinterpreted as a threat to the established order that must be beaten down, when ire and anger should really be directed at owners who run clubs into the ground. An intention to challenge the elite in Europe is met with similar impulses. Competition should be welcomed not driven out by procrastination or prosecution.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National