At the beginning of the season, the up and down and around the corner tale of Manchester City’s adventures in European football looked like it might be about to deliver a story of such beautiful symmetry, it was compelling.
From Vienna 1970 and the rain-drenched Cup Winners Cup final to a sun-baked Istanbul in 2020 and the final deliverance of a club that has tried and failed more times than the rest have attempted to tackle a hot dinner.
Tony Book’s weird bent-neck lifting of the cup to a rain-soaked crowd, juxtaposed alongside David Silva needing assistance to hoist a trophy bigger than his own upper body precisely 50 years later just seemed too irresistible for words.
Now the story is tugging us off in a totally different direction, through a vortex of dirty tales of sportswashing and financial doping to a scenario of another type altogether. Into its roaring slipstream we fall, tumbling and turning and gasping for air.
City have fallen foul of Uefa’s curiously subjective FFP structures and now the roof is falling in.
FFP is short for Financial Fair Play, by the way — an interesting fact, given the early focus of Michel Platini’s pet project when it was first wheeled out for public consumption a decade ago.
Debt — of which City have next to none — was Platini’s target. That target changed ever so slightly as FFP was “streamlined” and became fit for purpose. Uefa, discovering that debt was a way of life at too many of its blue-riband members, skewed the playing field instead.
All of a sudden, playing financial catch-up was a non-starter. To join the elite these days, you need a Roman Abramovic, or a Sheikh Mansour, and hope to hell the wind is blowing in the right direction.
But we all have a right to dream, of course.
Apparently not. As Rory Smith memorably put it in: “Other dreams are available. The dream that your club might be well run or have a good academy…”
Ah, yes, we all remember our days of youth, smelling the freshly cut grass, glimpsing the night-time floodlights and hoping that one day our club might have a neat academy structure, producing tidy little starlets for United and Real to pick off when they were ripe.
Mention of Real brings us to other areas shaded in grey. In 2016, the fruitily named Tobias Buck reported in thethat “Brussels will blow the whistle on Spanish football foul play on Monday with a decision that will force Real Madrid and FC Barcelona to repay illegal state subsidies enjoyed for a quarter-century.
Margrethe Vestager, EU competition commissioner, will tell Spain to recoup tens of millions of euros of unlawful aid in the form of soft loans, tax breaks and sweetheart property deals.”
Real, that bastion of Fair Play, will host the soon-to-be-banned City in the next round of the Champions League in the eagerly-awaited Skullduggery Derby.
If, as seems likely, City now ship up at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, they will bring with them a can of worms so large no allotment in Europe will be safe.
Bayern Munich, with the law-abiding, tax-paying Uli Hoeness fronting the operation, might be asked to look at how the club has been propped up by car firms for a quarter of a century. Liverpool, the latest paragon of organic virtue, lest it be forgotten, also failed FFP five short years ago, but Uefa decided “that costs redeveloping Anfield and the abandoned Stanley Park scheme were mitigating circumstances”. Hull City, meanwhile, “were not so lucky”.
As reported recently in, the gap between football’s super-rich and the rest has never been greater. How the old elite clubs became elite is a moot point. They are there now and, as the drawbridge is pulled up, they do not want, to coin a Richard Scudamore phrase of poetic balance, “too many Leicesters”.
In a nutshell, this is it. Breaking the rules is not a good look and reputational damage, even if City come out of an appeal with their European participation reinstated, will have some carbolic soap sportwashing needed to rinse this clean.
The days of Tony Book and Frannie Lee, of red-and-black-striped marauders skipping past Honved and Schalke and other luminaries of the day, have long gone.
What comes next will be a lot less palatable, but at least we can all dream, can’t we?