Friday’s utterly spectacular soccer news dump — Manchester City has been banned from the Champions League for the next two years and fined $32.5 million for circumventing UEFA’s “financial fair play” rules and attempting to cover it up — has no shortage of ramifications for the English Premier League club.
Yet perhaps what’s most fascinating about the severity of the penalty, besides the fact that it was actually levied at all, is that it puts City in a position where the best-case scenario is to become soccer’s version of the Houston Astros.
By now, even those who don’t follow baseball surely know that Houston’s 2017 World Series victory is tainted, to say the least, following revelations that players and management cheated their way to the trophy through sign-stealing. There have been calls to strip the Astros of their title in recent days. Even if the win stands, it will always be accompanied by an asterisk.
Which brings us back to Manchester City. Their teams of recent vintage may have been bona fide global juggernauts, but it wasn’t always that way. For most of the club’s 126-year history, it was decidedly second-class — often literally, toggling for decades between the lower divisions and the top flight in stark contrast to chief rival Manchester United.
That all changed when a group led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, bought Man City in 2008 and immediately started paying top-dollar for exotic talent. First it was Real Madrid’s Brazilian winger Robinho, whose purchase broke the British transfer record. All-planet talents Sergio Aguero, Kevin de Bruyne, Vincent Kompany and a host of others would follow. Eventually, so did manager Pep Guardiola.
Even United, which won the Premier League 13 times between 1993 and 2013, suddenly couldn’t compete with City’s limitless spending power. Those deep pockets produced some of the best teams English football has ever seen, with City winning the domestic championship four times in the 2010s following a 40-plus year drought.
For all of City’s recent successes, though, the most prestigious and coveted piece of hardware eluded them. City’s obsession with winning the Champions League led to the recruitment of Guardiola, the mastermind who won it twice as Barcelona manager. Ownership’s focus on the trophy is so intense that last season, when City became just the third team to repeat as Premier League champions, was viewed as a failure after relative peasants Tottenham Hotspur stunned them in an epic Champions League quarterfinal.
The disappointment inside the club was visceral. But it was also softened by the feeling that City would win the Champions League eventually. They were simply too rich and too ambitious for it not to happen, probably soon. And with Liverpool, the current Champions League holder, running away with this season’s Premier League race, there was a sense that this could be City’s year.
In purely sporting terms, Guardiola and Co. have no reason to fear Real Madrid — the record 13-time European champions who they’ll face later this month in the round of 16 — or anyone else left in the field. This tried and tested City squad is more than capable of winning it all.
That’s still true, even if one accepts that Friday’s shocking developments won’t help. For starters, the news increases the pressure significantly. Whether UEFA’s punishment is ultimately upheld after appeal almost doesn’t matter. The players will step on the field fully aware that they might only have one last chance to win the Champions League as a group.
If City does manage to hoist the trophy on May 30 in Istanbul and their harsh sentence remains in place, it would certainly take some of the shine off the accomplishment.
Fans of opposing teams will never let them forget that club executives refused to cooperate with UEFA’s investigation, or that City’s brass was found to have falsely inflated their sponsorship numbers to get around rules designed to ensure that the wealthiest clubs aren’t spending more money than they take in.
Just like the Astros, they knew full well what they were doing and, when caught, attempted to cover it up. Just like the Astros, Manchester City believed that the ends justified the means. And just like the Astros, that shortsighted notion has put them in a position where now the best possible outcome would be a title forever shrouded in shame.
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