Understandably, even Europe’s richest clubs are broke right now. This is not the same thing as being under existential threat, you don’t need to weep for Florentino Perez or worry that Everton’s going to file for bankruptcy, but it has made for a rather stagnant summer in terms of player movement. Transfers have been less frequent and the fees involved are lower than you would otherwise expect. Bayern Munich have only made one big move, grabbing Leroy Sané from Manchester City. Barcelona have been frantically moving on from older players on fat contracts, letting them go practically for free, just to get the wages off the books. Chelsea have, breaking with the trend, spent a ton on players like Kai Havertz and Timo Werner, but they’ve only been able to do so because they’ve sold very well in recent windows and are coming off a transfer ban, so they’re doing last summer’s business this offseason. As a general rule, clubs are selling to buy, working out creative payment plans, or simply not buying at all.
And yet Manchester City continue to spend. Nathan Ake for $50 million, Ferran Torres for $25 million, sizable if not massive investments in young talents like Pablo Moreno and Yan Couto. They’re about to put the finishing touches on what’s going to be, with Nicolas Otamendi heading in the other direction, a $62 million deal to bring Benfica center back Ruben Dias aboard. That will bring their total spending on defenders alone to about $500 million just since Pep Guardiola showed up in 2016. Real Madrid spend huge amounts, Paris Saint-Germain spend huge amounts, Chelsea, United, etc., but City really take it to a whole other level, even in the midst of a pandemic.
Mind you, these extravagant purchases are coming on the heels of City barely escaping a two-season Champions League ban. In February, UEFA determined the club to be in gross violation of Financial Fair Play regulations. The basic accusation was that Sheikh Mansour, owner of the Abu Dhabi Group that owns City, was financially doping, pumping his own money into the club through illegitimate sponsorships. FFP states that clubs have to either balance their books or run relatively modest deficits, and they have to do so without owners dipping too deeply into their own pockets. So the vast majority of their transfer fees, staff wages, player wages, game operation costs, etc. have to be covered by TV money, gate revenue, and corporate sponsorships. It’s meant to keep clubs solvent, so fans don’t get an owner who runs up a bunch of debt on the club’s credit card and then skips town, saddling the institution with a crippling financial predicament.
City’s owner gets around this by essentially functioning as his own corporate sponsor. Sheikh Mansour is a member of a somewhat convoluted monarchy that governs the United Arab Emirates—he’s a royal, in other words—and in the UAE, the royal family not only runs the country, they also own its big industries: oil, real estate, and most germane to City’s situation, Etihad Airways, the club’s main shirt sponsor and their stadium’s namesake. You’re smart, you can connect the dots: Sheikh Mansour, in ways many other owners can’t, is able to fund his club with his own money. All he has to do is use Etihad’s checks. It’s like if the Glazer family owned Chevy—and had the financial power of an oil state behind them.
UEFA claimed to have found that Sheikh Mansour was using Etihad to launder his cash, and this past July, the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturned that finding, lifting the Champions League ban while still instituting a $12 million fine because City tried to thwart UEFA’s investigation at every turn. Nobody except City fans has seemed particularly satisfied by this result, because the CAS ruling was so vague and City’s self-defense so transparently dishonest and brutal. The impression lingers: yeah, they probably did cheat the FFP rules, to some extent. And now they know they can get away with it. At best, it’s suspicious that at a time when, for instance, Real Madrid have sold off several promising talents without making any signings, City are reloading like it’s a more or less normal transfer window.
To go on and on about this is sort of silly. It’s just the sport’s world order reinforcing itself. Soccer is a game of staggering disparities—check Barcelona’s wage bill, then take a look at Huesca’s—and what City do, in terms of the sheer eye-watering amount of scratch they lay out on a yearly basis, represents a difference in degree rather than kind from what Chelsea, PSG, and others do. So maybe they’re cheating; there’s a lot of stuff that’s well within the financial regulations that’s also pretty unfair. If you’re a smaller club, you have to make the best of it. Dortmund know they’re never going to beat Bayern Munich over the long term; they hope that there are individual seasons in which they play better ball.
But it’s also totally justified to hate City, because they have all the advantages. Pep Guardiola is an excellent coach, but he can’t make a credible argument that his successes are not bought as much as they are earned. What’s left for him to do, and for the club to do, in order to begin to justify themselves, is to dominate in a way that their financial superiority suggests they should. They got annihilated by Liverpool in the league last season and crashed out, meekly as ever, in the Weird Champions League against Lyon. They have been, broadly speaking, a disappointment since Pep arrived in Manchester and their spending kicked into squickish overdrive. Already in 2020-21, they’ve got one win and one mortifying loss to Leicester City on their record. There are no excuses for this; nobody pities them for their failures anymore. City will either beat the rest of the world into grim submission or end up a profligate punchline. You could call this their rightful punishment: the best they can do is win our grudging respect.