Playing the victim card is how elites game the system. Just look at Manchester City | Kenan Malik


YoIf you want a metaphor for the state of contemporary politics, the worst thing you could do is pay attention to football. Not Euro 24, the tournament that starts at the end of the week, although it should be exciting, but the off-field drama. created by a legal case that Manchester City is taking against the Premier League, a case that could have important ramifications both inside and outside the game.

The Premier League is the richest national football league, and Manchester City is the most prestigious club in it, having just been crowned champion for an unprecedented fourth year in a row. Last year had the highest revenue generated by any Premier League club, the higher business incomeand the largest wage bill.

So why is he preparing for a legal battle? Because you want to be able to spend even more money than you already spend. And to do this, it wants to eliminate some of the regulations that restrict spending in the name of fairer competition, particularly the Associated Party Transactions (APT) rules, which insist that any commercial transaction carried out by a club with companies linked to their owners should not be artificially inflated but should reflect “market value.”

All of this may seem like an arcane question about football finances that only interests sports fans, but it gets to the heart of much of what is wrong with the game. And in Manchester City's self-portrait of its attempt to overthrow these rules, we can also glimpse the perversity of contemporary politics. A club at the top of football's elite presents its case not as a dispute between a group of mega-rich owners over how they share their wealth, but as an oppressed club that, in the words of one supporter, “He declared war on the entire football elite”. It is an echo of how many in the political debate also try to portray themselves.

Over the past 40 years, football has gone from being a working-class sport, often treated with disdain by the elite, to a glory project for the middle class and, for some clubs, a money-making machine; of a game described by sunday time in 1985 as “a slum sport played in slum stadiums and increasingly policed ​​by inner-city people” to “an aspirational, optimistic and upwardly mobile business,” in the words of former Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore. speaking to parliamentarians in 2011. As football has become big business, the amount of money flowing into the game has also transformed.

A turning point was the purchase of the Chelsea football club by Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in 2003. In his 19 years as owner, until he was forced to sell in 2022 due to sanctions imposed after Vladimir's invasion of Ukraine Putin, Abramovich spent more than £2 billion in player signingsturning Chelsea, who had last been league champions in 1955, into a sporting powerhouse, winning 18 major trophies, including five Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues.

Other billionaires soon followed. Source of first division The clubs now have American owners. Then the Gulf States and their royal families entered the picture, in comparison with which even Russian oligarchs and American tycoons can seem poor.

In 2008, Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family, with a family fortune of approximately 1 billion dollars, bought Manchester City. Three years later, the French club Paris Saint-Germain was acquired by the state of Qatar through a sovereign investment fund. More recently, in 2021, Newcastle United were absorbed by a consortium led by the state Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia. The British government reportedly put pressure on the Premier League accept the acquisition so as not to “risk” British-Saudi relations.

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The influx of money improved stadiums and made the game more cosmopolitan. He also ensured that football itself – the skill, the beauty, the passion – was subordinated to the product and the brand. The voice of the money men drowned out that of the fans. Competition on the field became distorted as the gap between the richest clubs and the rest widened. Smaller clubs were forced to rack up debt in a futile attempt to keep up with the big boys, and some went bankrupt as a result.

In response, football's governing bodies introduced new regulations such as UEFA's. financial fair play and the Premier League profitability and sustainability rules (PSR), whose objective is to limit a club's spending and link it to income. In turn, some of the richest clubs have allegedly attempted to game the system by artificially inflating revenues. Chelsea, for example, Two hotels were recently sold. to a company that is also owned by the club owners (in practice, they sell their assets to themselves) to avoid violating PSR rules. Manchester City signed a great sponsorship deal with Etihad Airlines – which happens to be owned by the Abu Dhabi government.

The APT rules are an attempt to minimize these types of games. And they are the ones that Manchester City wants to tear apart. He already faces 115 charges of non-compliance Premier League financial rulesthe club has adopted what some describe as “the nuclear option”- trying to incinerate the regulations themselves.

The irony of all this is that the Premier League has been at the forefront of putting the needs of wealthy men before those of fans, of treating football as a commodity rather than a sport, of serving the interests of the biggest clubs. rich and ignore broader interests. game interests. The changes he helped incubate generated both the current city ​​of manchesterand his desire for a bonfire of rules.

It is not difficult to discern the echoes of broader political debates. Also in today's politics struggles within the elite are often presented as challenges to the elite. Opposition politics has been so hollowed out and the public so disengaged from the mechanisms of change, that maverick figures within the elite, from Donald Trump to Nigel Farage, from Marine Le Pen to Giorgia Meloni, politicians with reactionary policies on everything from immigration to trade. union rights, can be presented as challenges to the establishment, rather than as an intimate part of it, and as a voice for the working class, rather than trying to keep it under control.

Manchester City's legal challenge to the Premier League will be resolved by an arbitration panel and perhaps the courts. Forging movements that can challenge the political elite will not be so easy.

Kenan Malik is a columnist for the Observer

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