Regardless of how or whether Manchester City is punished, the biggest question is how European soccer plans to contend with a growing sector of oligarch playthings and sportswashing superpowers
Somewhere near the end of Farewell, My Lovely, the second of Raymond Chandler’s novels about private detective Philip Marlowe, a glamorous blond woman named Mrs. Grayle takes a slow drag on a cigarette and explains what it’s like to have money. Mrs. Grayle is rich, but she hasn’t been rich all that long. She was a nightclub singer who married a millionaire. She remembers what it’s like to be poor. She tells Marlowe she thinks it’s a lousy world, and when he says, “Money must help,” she answers:
“You think it’s going to when you haven’t always had money. As a matter of fact, it just makes new problems. … And you forget how hard the old problems were.”
I thought about Mrs. Grayle on Monday, when the Premier League quietly posted a statement on its website charging Manchester City, the most dominant club in the past decade of English soccer, with more than 100 violations of league financial rules stretching back to 2009. Man City is famously rich, but it hasn’t been rich all that long. For decades, it was the junior club in its own hometown, massively overshadowed by the behemoth of Manchester United. Then, in 2008, City pulled off the soccer equivalent of a noir chanteuse’s wedding to a wealthy businessman. Its then owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, a former prime minister of Thailand (he’d been inconveniently deposed in a coup), sold it to Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a billionaire sheikh and the brother of the president of United Arab Emirates. OK, to be technically precise, Shinawatra sold the club to a Russian nesting doll of holding companies, one embedded opaquely inside another. But the holding companies, and the club itself, were ultimately controlled by Abu Dhabi’s royal family.
Which meant—to be technically precise again—money.
You think money is going to solve all your problems when you haven’t always had money. The sudden and extreme influx of cash that Man City received after the Abu Dhabians took over enabled it to go on one of the most head-spinning spending sprees in the history of sports. City’s new owners hired the most acclaimed manager in the world, Pep Guardiola (salary: somewhere around $25 million per year, $5 million more than what the Patriots pay Bill Belichick). They bought some of the game’s biggest stars, like Kevin De Bruyne and Erling Haaland (salary: around $1.1 million … per week). They built a bench so deep and so loaded with talent that finding playing time for all their stars became, at times, a bigger tactical hurdle for Guardiola than actual soccer tactics.
A decade or so ago, there was a moment when high-end cocktail bars started putting $10,000 martinis on their menus to give finance bros a chance to show off. I am reminded of this every time I remember that Man City paid $140 million for Jack Grealish.
But the spending worked! Relentless investment turned Man City into a powerhouse, with four league titles in the past five years and six in the past 11; three Champions League semifinal appearances and its first berth in the final in 2021; two FA Cups since 2011; and six League Cups since 2014. I often forget the League Cup exists, but even I have to pay attention when one team wins four of them in a row, as City did between 2018 and 2021.
But as Mrs. Grayle said, money makes new problems. Especially when other people don’t like the way you spend it. These people may have some theoretical interest in “rules” or “fairness” or “competitive parity”—all the stuff money was supposed to help you ignore!—and they may accuse you of cheating if you don’t follow their silly poor-person regulations. If the Premier League’s statement about its investigation into City’s business practices is to be believed, the club’s rise to the top of the game was fueled not just by lavish spending, but by ignoring the few limitations the league places on lavish spending to give poorer clubs a fraction of a sliver of a chance. The league has accused City of a whole raft of violations, including failing to provide accurate information about its finances, hiding contractual payments to players and managers, and refusing to cooperate with Premier League investigators over a stretch of many years.
After the league published its statement on Monday, Man City released a counterstatement expressing its “surprise” over the allegations. That’s a funny word to use in this context, partly because Man City has known for years that it’s been under investigation, and partly because … well, I can’t speak for you, but I can’t imagine too many people were “surprised” by the thought that City might have been flouting financial regulations all this time. They already were banned from the Champions League for two years in 2020 for violating Financial Fair Play rules. That ban was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport, not because the case was weak, but because the statute of limitations on some of the charges had expired.
Personally, I’ve always just assumed City was circumventing every regulation it could, that the background noise at the club office was a merry hum of constant low-grade account manipulation, like some subplot on Succession in which Cousin Greg is ordered to cook the books of a soccer club. Am I too cynical? Pep Guardiola, who once claimed to believe in the integrity of City’s owners “100 percent,” would say so. But tell me how plausible the following conversation looks to you:
“Why did you establish this complex network of international holding companies?”
“So that we could be completely transparent and follow every rule to the letter.”
What happens next, for Man City and the Premier League itself, is unclear. There will be a confidential hearing before an independent commission, and if you know exactly what that means, you’re way ahead of me. There will perhaps be some sort of punishment, maybe in the form of a points deduction, though given City’s influence and the scale of the league’s commercial relationships with Emirates-based companies, it’s hard to imagine the fallout will be too severe. Some of the news reports have speculated that City could be kicked out of the division, which, OK, may technically be within the scope of the league’s powers, but nothing I’ve ever seen in global soccer makes me think that’s likely to happen. It’s more likely that the City board will be forced to sit in a room and watch the match footage from the club’s 1-0 loss to Tottenham this past weekend. (Which, in fairness, would hurt a lot.)
In my mind, the biggest question here is not how many points City will be docked, if any, but how on earth European soccer is going to resolve the tensions of its billionaire era. Because it’s not just City; it’s every club in the growing sector of oligarch playthings and sportswashing superpowers. It’s Newcastle, now owned by Saudi Arabia. It’s Paris Saint-Germain, now owned by Qatar. It was Chelsea in the Roman Abramovich years, and even new owner Todd Boehly is handing out eight-year, $125 million contracts. Most soccer fans, I think, have a sense that the biggest clubs are now in many ways beyond the power of the governing bodies that are supposed to regulate them. They exist less as concrete organizations within a tidy league structure and more as elusive manifestations of international capital, able to exploit complex global channels of governments, legal frameworks, and corporate ties to slip out of any regulatory box you try to put them in.
They also field the best soccer teams, the teams many fans are most excited to watch. A De Bruyne–to-Haaland pass may be enabled by a lot of shady dealings, but it can also make your face go numb with its sheer beauty. What are we supposed to do with that? Two years ago, the misguided attempt to form a breakaway European Super League at least represented an attempt to clarify the situation. It said: The old league structures have been superseded, and money is now everything. Could the Premier League possibly punish Manchester City severely enough to say the opposite? Keep in mind that the Premier League was founded, back in the mists of 1992, explicitly to funnel more money to the biggest clubs in England. In cracking down on Man City for thinking wealth lifts it above the law, the league is fighting against the logic of its own existence.
Money makes new problems, Mrs. Grayle said, and you forget how hard the old problems were. But I’m sure very few City fans would go back to their old problems. Who’d give back six championships to escape one measly Premier League investigation? Manchester City is fully established as a big club now, and you don’t let that go if you can help it. In Farewell, My Lovely, Mrs. Grayle, whose real name is Velma Valento, is so determined to escape from her old life that she kills a man who tries to take her back to it. She escapes before the cops come. She almost gets away with the murder. They do catch her eventually but not until the very end, and even then, it feels like the most unrealistic thing in the book.
Source: The Ringers