At first they just started out as innocent rumours. “City out”, “City banned” whispered their way around the hallowed streets of St Andrews at around 6 o’clock on another listless, predictably boozy Friday night (to others it may have been notable for being Valentine’s day). Yet a full on wildfire was to explode in the space of a few hours with the announcement that Manchester City, owing to Union of European Football Associations’ (UEFA) investigation of their supposed financial fair play (FFP) breaches, had been kicked out of the Champions League for the next two seasons.
For many this was an outcome that had been scarcely believable. UEFA has been banging on, seemingly for decades now, about punishing those that lavish the wealth at their disposal with reckless abandon, but this had appeared for so long to be the epitome of an empty threat. Others applauded them for finally taking a stand in following through on their words. It was a result that was cheered by many across the continent. Less so for the fact that the integrity of FFP had been upheld, but more for the reason that a worthy and dangerous challenger for Europe’s most storied European club football competition had now been evicted from the elite for two seasons. With 5th place in the Premier League now securing a spot at the high table, it also endowed punters with the chance to fawn over the prospects of Barcelona and Bayern strutting their stuff at the likes of Bramall Lane or Molineux next term (or for those of us hallucinating really hard, the Emirates).
For City though, to say this is a setback would be the understatement of the century. Having dominated English football for large swathes of the 2010s, they had made little secret of their desire to add Champions League razzmatazz to their already highly salubrious mantelpiece. That now appears to be a fantasy for the foreseeable future after this year. While coach Pep Guardiola appears set to soldier on at the helm, certainly many of his charges — not least Raheem Sterling who has been very publicly flirting with a move to Real Madrid this summer —may well be questioning a transfer to pastures new, in the hope of a Champions League crown. City will also find it imperceptibly harder now to be able to court the best talent the game has to offer; to try and convince such stars to relocate to the Ettihad with only the pursuit of domestic English competitions as a negotiating chip until at least 2022 is a tough sell to say the least.
Perhaps the greatest irony of all this is that the period in which City were punished for wasn’t the last three years of gluttony; where winning on an industrial scale was de rigueur (198 points in just two league seasons etc) but actually the 2013-16 years, where save for their 2014 League title, this era can be seen as something of a false dawn – a glory hiatus – before Guardiola strolled into town and got things going again. Only now are they being made to pay for the era famous for the likes of Bony, Demichelis,and Sagna; that promised so much but delivered relatively little, especially in Europe.
Yet the chances of City taking this ruling in good spirits and moving on with no hard feelings were always going to be slim. The Mubarak family haven’t poured billions of pounds into this club since 2008 just to be forced to accept setbacks like this; indeed, they have already lodged an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, with the ruling expected in due course. There is every chance this ruling will therefore be overturned, or at least watered down, and City will be allowed back into the big time next season. Still though, for many a precedent has now been set, and regardless of the outcome of the appeal, City, along with many other clubs across Europe, have been issued a stark warning.
This in itself is obviously an incredible story many still struggle to come to terms with. However you only have to cast an eye over to football’s oval-shaped cousin to find an eerily parallel story that has engulfed the English rugby universe this year too.
Throughout the 2010s Saracens were undoubtedly the kings of the English game. Going into this season they had won 4 of the last 5 English Premiership titles and 3 of the last 4 European Champions Cups. Heading into this year it appeared as though nothing could stop this behemoth of a club. That is until the Rugby Football Union did some digging into their player salaries and found something seriously awry.
It transpired that Saracens had been taking an extremely laissez-faire approach to the league’s salary cap requirement, indeed plainly flouting it in order to finance their legion of rugby prodigies, many of whom formed the backbone of the England side that came close to World Cup immortality last autumn. At first they were hit with a 35-point deduction; a tough blow, yes, and one that ruled them out of title contention for this year, but one you’d still expect a team awash with such star power to overcome. Then when it became plainly obvious they wouldn’t be able to meet the cap requirements for this year they were duly informed they had been expelled to the English Championship for next season, a stunning ruling that has sent shockwaves through the English game.
Delve deeper and you quickly realise there are some stark similarities between these two clubs. Both endured decades of anonymity: Saracens were slugging it out on a public park in the mid-1990s before Chairman Nigel Wray began pumping cash into the club, whilst as recently as 1999 City were languishing in what is now League 1. Both have therefore burst onto the scene again in relatively recent years, a fact that has led to some consternation amongst the traditional elites in both sports. Indeed a refrain utilised by many a Saracen fan over the preceding few months (and to a lesser extent City, within the footballing sphere) was that the English rugby elites – the likes of Harlequins, Leicester and Wasps – simply resented their “nouveau-riche” identity as well as their stunning success and were waiting for just the slightest excuse to rid them of their legitimacy and send them back to their ancestral beginnings.
Yet, when all is said and done, both clubs were guilty of cheating, plain and simple. For Saracens the future is far more uncertain; certain star players have expressed their desire to remain at the club and thrash it out in decidedly less upmarket rugby hotbeds as Ampthill, Ealing and Jersey next year, however their perilous finances and desperate need to balance the books ensures that they simply can’t all hang around. Should City’s ban be upheld however, you feel that while in the short term they may suffer an initial shock in revenue generation, this is a club with the resources and infrastructure to still flourish in spite of the ruling.
For me the big takeaway here is one of encouragement. For too long the big boys in these sports have been openly in defiance of the rules imposed on them. While both City and Saracens’ assertions that they have been unfairly scapegoated may well be legitimate, it is very encouraging to see the relevant governing authorities belatedly showing some conviction in trying to check the power of such clubs with hopefully rulings that will act as a deterrent for others considering similar misdemeanours. Going forward, the respective rulings will continue to reverberate around their relevant circles; we can only hope however they can be a springboard to a fairer, more merit-based culture in both of these sports that we watch and love.