It’s the ‘Castle of Lies’ v the Glazers’ ATM. The ‘Global Enemies of Football’ v The Red Cash Cow.
So which way does our moral compass point?
Manchester City are winning this race on the league table and the balance sheets. Some estimates put Sheikh Mansour and his Abu Dhabi ruling family’s investment into City over 10 years at close to €2 billion. The Guardian’s David Conn calculates the Glazer family has not quite kept pace in taking more than €1 billion out of Manchester United since 2005.
Conveniently, the clubs’ midweek Champions League exploits neatly illustrate their divergent paths. City bullied little Shakhtar Donetsk, who only have Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov in their corner. While Jose Mourinho gallantly defied the minnowisation of United with a plucky giant-killing of Juventus in Turin.
“Everyone knows their ambitions are different to ours,” Mourinho said afterwards, of Juve.
A net spend on transfers over three seasons of around €350m (including €100m on Juve’s star) compared to City’s €450m suggests United haven’t ambled along entirely without ambition. Though Jose could pay the wages of the three or four new centre halves he always wants with the reported €20m ‘dividend’ the six Glazer siblings divide annually. Or the roughly €30m interest payments on Glazer loans.
But there is altogether more determined ambition showcased in Der Spiegel’s ‘Manchester City Exposed’ investigations published this week.
When faced, in 2010, with UEFA’s looming Financial Fair Play rules that would limit Abu Dhabi’s ability to invest, City could have, Der Spiegel argues, “cut costs and lowered the expectations many had for the football project”.
“But no,” it added. “If you want to buy your way into football heaven, you can’t let a few rules get in the way.”
Using emails and documents ‘obtained’ from the club by Football Leaks, the German paper scouts creative talent on par with the Silvas and De Bruyne in City’s accounting department. The scale of Emirate investment in the club has, they allege, been obscured via a tiki-taka tapestry of inflated sponsorship deals, roundabout payments and shadowy cash injections.
“We can do what we want,” a City executive is quoted.
“Manchester City has managed to cheat its way into the top echelon of European football,” Der Spiegel rages. “The club’s newfound glory is rooted in lies.”
How outraged should we be? Since we are just as comfortable on the credit side of this ledger.
There has just been an emotional outpouring of tributes to the largesse of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha — the JP McManus of Bangkok — for bankrolling Leicester’s dreams.
Though the club only settled a Financial Fair Play dispute with the Football League last February, paying £3.1m for exceeding permitted losses in the 2013-14 season when they were promoted to the Premier League.
Meanwhile, Newcastle’s billionaire owner Mike Ashley is routinely pilloried for a reluctance to afford his sleeping giant a chance to dream.
Is disquiet over City purely down to scale — to the unlimited scope of sovereign oil riches to skew everything?
Or if our problem is purely the sportswashing of human rights violations, a tumble into whataboutery is inevitable.
In a league table of misery triggered, where would the Abu Dhabi oilmen stack up against Roman Abramovich? And what kind of mid-table finish would there be for the billionaires owning Premier League clubs whose fortunes have come from gambling companies?
Anyway, wasn’t Financial Fair Play simply a ruse to protect a cartel of established interests, to stop the nouveau riche from buying into the top table?
How many tears should we shed for La Liga, adamant this week that City must be punished again by UEFA, when Real Madrid, the world’s richest club, was ordered by the European Commission two years ago to repay €20m in illegal government help?
You could almost make the case that it is immoral to try to stop City filling their coffers.
Just follow the City money trail into the pockets of men like Jesus, sent home with food boxes for his family from his first club in Sao Paulo. Or Sergio Aguero, who grew up on dinners of stale bread in a Buenos Aires slum. Or Raheem Sterling, whose mother worked two or three cleaning jobs at a time to feed him.
Throw in the regeneration of East Manchester, the building of a community college and leisure centre and affordable homes. Consider the uplifting, beautiful football. And then factor in that City turned a profit of just £10m last year, after £2 billion put in. You could almost come round to thinking that football is providing just about the perfect vehicle for redistributing wealth via the world’s only genuine meritocracy. And ask what kind of lunacy would it be to erect barriers to this magnificent arrangement.
It was notable that Der Spiegel’s outrage over one aspect of City’s financial might is a touch parochial.
It wrings its hands over City prizing Kevin De Bruyne from reluctant Volkswagen club Wolfsburg in autumn 2015.
“When Manchester City decides it wants a player no matter how high the price is, even an automobile manufacturer with sales of €200 billion eventually buckles.”
Tears come slowly. We remember that it was in the autumn of 2015 that Volkswagen first admitted its software was programmed to cheat emissions tests.
They have since copped billions in fines.
In trying to figure out this extraordinary moral lapse from a respected pillar of industry, the Financial Times wrote about “the ‘slippery slope’ bias that causes us to subconsciously lower our ethical standards gradually over time.”
To an organisation with a high regard for its own achievements and judgment, it argued, “software manipulations might just be perceived as another gradual step.”
Perhaps VW just became a place where executives thought they could do what they want.