Manchester City’s history in European football is a curious case of the premature, the never-has-been and, as of today, the maybe-never-will-be.
Cup Winners Cup winners (try saying that with your grandmother’s teeth) in 1970, before many British sides had even woken up to European football’s potential trials and tribulations, they followed early success with embarrassment, then disinterest.
Between losing to Borussia Monchengladbach in 1979 and beating Total Network Solutions (what a re-entry that was) in 2003, a well-documented switchback of brave ups and laughable domestic downs filled the gigantic void left by absolutely no European football whatsoever. 24 years of total indifference, a blank canvass, a dark hole, a gaping crevasse.
City have always been a deeply contrary beast. Relegated scoring 100 goals as the reigning champions? No problem at all. Out of the FA Cup to a 4th division side hypnotized by a man who crashed his car into a police van driving blindfold a week later? We can do it. Missing UEFA Cup qualification whilst playing a substitute goalkeeper up front? Yes, that too.
More recent times have seen the club transformed from the limping, ugly duckling always one step from getting run over by a truck of Gazprom to a preening would-be superpower of the modern game. And this is really where the going began to get tough.
Through a pin-stripe of Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and now Pep Guardiola, City have got better and better, scooping up domestic prizes like they were going out of fashion and playing sumptuous passing football that has glittered and shimmered. Champions League football was gathered in for the first time in 2011-12, a brave new world that had cost the club a king’s ransom to even get close to. Now a second king’s ransom would be necessary to stay afloat against the giants of the European game.
It rapidly became apparent what kind of farrago this was going to be. City failed to exit their groups for the first two years. Playing Napoli, Bayern, Real, Dortmund, Ajax and the rest of the continent’s royal family was fun but not easy. More cash was needed.
It was around about here that Michel Platini, moving shamelessly from balletic to pathetic, from footballer to fraudulent administrator (later to take shape in a crude pas-de-deux with then-French premier Nicolas Sarkozy to bring the World Cup to that deserving football nation Qatar) started sitting up and taking notice.
City were beginning to edge some of the tournament’s old dears out of the limelight. Milan had spluttered to a standstill from which they are still busily trying to crank the engine back to life. Manchester United hit the post-Ferguson rocks like a cruise liner captained by an Italian with shore-bound friends to impress and the old rocks of Ajax and Feyenoord, Liverpool and Celtic were being ground down to dust.
Nouveau riches arrivistes, to coin a phrase from Monsieur Platini’s language of love, were not exactly welcome. The fans began to realise this when a match in Moscow went horribly wrong.
The infamous CSKA game is where the UEFA “anthem” booing began. Fans had bought tickets for a match that UEFA later decided would be played behind closed doors, because of rank behavior from Russian fans in an earlier round. City fans were out of pocket and went without compensation. Some travelled anyway, to be told to turn around when they reached the gates. Inside, meanwhile, a noisy and boisterous home support had mustered and somehow gained entry. Moscow smelled of fish.
None of this is an excuse. It costs money to participate at football’s elite level and football’s odd rules punish those that invest wisely. Unlike any other industry sector, judicious investment is punished, whilst ladling debt brings you free entry.
Somewhere along the way, City’s financial tightrope walk has left them dangling. With Arsene Wenger’s oft-repeated cute phrase “financial doping” echoing above us all, the establishment has hit back. But City are the establishment. New arrivals, for sure, but members of an elite, tiny and privileged group that can count themselves as contenders.
And now UEFA has chucked one of their contenders out. This is a bold move. City’s finances may have crashed through a few of Zurich’s red lines, but they can also support a hefty legal battle at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne. What comes out of that is anybody’s guess.
It is a black comedy that suits our times, a tragi-farce that truly fits on City’s shoulders like one of Sepp Blatter’s goat skin. What happens next is up in the air, but I would not bet against City, derobed and chastised, walking out proudly to a wall of booing at this season’s Champion’s League final at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on May 30th.
The symmetry of this whole farce would then be complete.