Writer: Tim Stillman
Date:Wednesday September 10 2008
I used to harbour a real soft spot for Manchester City. It may be in part owing to a mutual distaste for their neighbours, it might be from that time at Maine Road in 2001 when Arsenal had raced into a 4-0 half time lead and the City fans, always ones for laconic, self deprecating humour, chanted "what`s it like to be outclassed?" followed by, three minutes into the second period, "0-0 in the second half!" But in light of their recent sensational takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group (so that`s what our perennially injured midfielder does with his spare time?) I have felt that soft spot fade somewhat. Interpret this as one of the big boys feeling threatened if that is your inclination, but the speed with which they were willing to jump into bed with the deplorable Shiniwatra removed the sheen from my fondness. Even if, in typical City style, they came up with an amusing chant to honour their benefactor. (To the tune of the Proclaimers, "You can take £500million and you can take 500 more, cos Thaksin`s got another £500million underneath his bedroom floor. Shiniwatra, Shiniwatra.") With Thaksin`s assets frozen as he refuses to re enter Thailand for fear of imprisonment, City looked to be lacking atonality and knee deep in the brown stuff.
With Thaksin not exactly screaming larceny from the rooftops, this development pleased me somewhat. Firstly, because it elucidated the deplorable incompetence of Scudamore and his cronies in applying the 'fit and proper persons test`, which looks to be one of the most flimsily applied pieces of legislation since the Government`s laughable ASBO scheme. Secondly, I regarded it as a kind of moral victory for football, illuminating the delightful schaudenfreude of watching a human rights abuser and all the supporters that soporifically anaesthetised themselves from his past get their comeuppance. The footballing deities seemed to have stirred themselves from slumber and declared, in the delightfully menacing words of Thom Yorke, "this is what you`ll get/ if you mess with us." However, the comatosed Gods of football must have slipped back into their narcolepsy as deadline day saw an audacious buyout from Saudi Royals, their interest piqued by the prospect of another plaything. Scenes scattered across our scenes as City fans greeted the signing of Robinho with Bacchanalian delight, once again they were lifting their skirts and accepting a shafting from the Abu Dhabi United group and all of a sudden the top flight had another steroid injection to deal with. Most of these supporters were likely unaware/ unconcerned that the family behind the group, the Al Nahyans, were the subject of an Amnesty International Report to the UN in July. The fact that their regime offers detention without trial, public floggings, but not the vote for citizenry did not appear to register on the Eastlands radar.
Perhaps you cannot blame them really, after years of comic underachievement, subsequent relegations, managers that lasted for 33 days, the boardroom battle of Swales and Lee, the death of Marc Vivien Foe and the spectre of United`s shadow engulfing them, perhaps they feel they are entitled to take a seat at James Bond`s Monte Carlo table. But from a moral standpoint, do City fans want it that way? With a synthetic cash injection? Is not the essence of sport, perhaps ironically, the last bastion of the Capitalist ideal, best man wins, best clubs get the best players and the best clubs win the biggest prizes? I wouldn`t argue that the wealth distribution of football is fair and even at this moment, but is another billionaire the solution? (Though it does make me laugh that such a right wing governed sport as football has people rushing to orgiastically apply Socialist principles when it suits their agenda to do so). Perhaps my thinking is outmoded, perhaps the fact that my immediate social group is comprised entirely of people who support lower league sides, but a football club means more to me than that. It is more than a result on a screen and a trophy on the sideboard to boast to my mates about. Perhaps that`s because when you go drinking with Millwall, Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday fans, there`s a limit to the amount of banter you can realistically indulge. But Arsenal play for 180 minutes every week at the most, yet the club demonstratibly dominates all of our thoughts for much longer than that in an average week. It is a culture and an epoch we buy into (if you`ll excuse the phraseology there). The clubs I mention above, Palace, Millwall and Wednesday; they have not achieved a great deal in their modest histories, they are unlikely to achieve much in their futures either. Yet people still turn up in their thousands to watch. When a friend of mine renewed his Millwall season ticket this summer, he remarked on the insanity of paying money, knowing he would watch his side lose more than they would win in the third tier of English football. Does that not prove that supporting a team is more than just a Saudi businessman presumably bored with the spectre of public floggings?
Would I have been happy had Arsenal been taken over by these devil may care billionaires? Not at all, not only for the moral implications but because I happen to treasure the fact that my football club is not a circus. City`s star signing got the name of his new side wrong in his first interview as their employee. With fickle, starry eyed players comes a brand of synthetic interest, the kind of which I am sure annoy those who supported Chelsea through the 1980s. While it`s fair to say Arsenal attracts its fair share of glory hunters, I wouldn`t be comfortable with this artificially piqued interest in the club. Aside from his questionable sense of ethics, this is one of the reasons I strongly resist the neon claws of Usmanov, together with his Daily Mail driven campaign for power and his attempt to sensor naysayers on the internet. (Though you have to give credit to him and Dein, they have achieved the impossible by making the august publication of the Daily Mail even more despicable than it already was).
But something that is wantonly overlooked by City fans are the broader financial implications. Firstly, upon the club itself, the Abu Dhabi group have called themselves an "investment company", though given their boasting about signing Ronaldo and talk of them initiating the first £500k weekly contract; they are obviously unconcerned about receiving much of a return on their investment. Whatever the semantics of it, the fact is that City are now at the absolute behest of their benefactors. The wage bill is likely to sky rocket to unprecedented proportions, should the Saudis decide to pull the plug in a fit of pique, City`s future will be plunged into immediate danger. One can foresee the manner the club is likely to be run in, with talk of immediate Champions League success, instant pressure is applied to the current staff and an unpleasant environment is created. Whilst the Abu Dhabi Group may know a thing or two about business, football is somewhat trickier and breaking the hegemony of the top four is likely to take at least a little bit of forbearance. For the long term, it does not look at all sustainable to me and like Icarus who flew too close to the sun; the wax might just fall from beneath City`s wings in the long term.
There are of course the worrying implications of football as a whole, this summer`s transfer window was a little like the quiet after the storm. A global recession had forced clubs to reign in their spending and a little sanity was restored to the game. Barcelona spoke of selling before they could buy, Chelsea were unusually frugal by their standards. Now with the Saudi billions entered into the equation, already astronomical wages will swell further, transfer fees will inflate as sellers look to milk City for all their worth. When the time arrives for the seller to replace their "asset", negotiations will fat with avarice, as the new seller looks to feed on City`s sloppy seconds. As competing sides struggle to compete financially, their only riposte will be to raise ticket prices still further, which will likely be met with indifference from a paying public in the grip of the credit crunch. The Abu Dhabi Group might as well have ridden into Manchester on four horses, because their arrival could have apocalyptic consequences on a game already close to eating itself with talk of distorting competitions to include foreign league games, the G-14, ostensibly a group of pigs with their snouts in a trough, of which we are part, and such like.
Construe this as a terrified whinge from a member of the Sky Sports, super duper Grand Slam Sunday endorsed big four who feels threatened if you must. Perhaps you will throw the predictable cry of envy at me, perhaps you think I that, as early as my mid twenties, I have entered fuddy duddy territory with my overly romantic notions. Or perhaps I think football is fast losing its appeal, gripped in a cyclone of sheikhs and fakes. I want my club to be successful, of course. But not that way thank you, I don`t want any part of that vulgar circus for reasons moral and long term fiscal. Not for all the tea in china, or all the oil in Siberia for that matter.LD.
Date:Wednesday September 10 2008
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