“In soccer, money is destiny,” Brian Phillips wrote in 2011. “And destiny’s not distributed equally.”
At its best, the Premier League is an exhilarating spectacle sustained in part by a moneyed elite that spends millions on superstar players. At its worst, the Premier League feels like a lame excuse for the moneyed elite to play for more money. In the early 1990s, English clubs broke away from the old Football League and formed their own competition designed to realize the commercial potential of a new, streamlined league that would fully embrace live television. Since then, a small band of financially empowered teams has dominated. Sometimes they’re a “Big Four;” sometimes they’re a “Big Three;” once in a while they’re even a “Big Five.” While those clubs vie for major honors, the rest of the Premier League invents and then competes in a series of phony battles, the most notable of which is “The Battle To Avoid The Drop” and the most banal “The Battle To Finish In The Top Ten If, By April, We’re Too Good For The Drop But Not Good Enough For Europe.”
Occasionally, it’s possible for traditionally weak teams to break into the top tier; however, such maneuvers require the type of money that Chelsea, traditionally a promising but never truly successful club, has enjoyed since 2003, when Russian billionaire and celebrity yacht-owner Roman Abramovich decided, virtually on a whim, that he rather liked Stamford Bridge. After a couple of seasons of steady investment, self-proclaimed “Special One” Jose Mourinho secured Abramovich’s team the Premier League title. And last year, after numerous failed attempts, Chelsea became the first London club to win the Champions League, or European Cup — as it was known before a certain fascination with the green stuff necessitated a rebranding.
Chelsea’s ascent, however, is nothing compared to Manchester City’s. Until the mid-2000s, City was about as small a dot on the footballing map as it is possible to be while still remaining visible. The club’s most recent league success had come in 1968, the same year that Manchester United, City’s local rivals, won the European Cup. United has always been the more successful of the two teams. Over the years, players such as Bobby Charlton and Ryan Giggs have entertained the Old Trafford crowd; fans at City’s stadium have settled for the likes of Mike Summerbee and Shaun Wright-Phillips. In 1974, City’s Denis Law scored the goal that relegated Manchester United to the Second Division – but the fact that Law was a former United player who could hardly bear to celebrate his cute back-heel finish ruined what should have been a moment of jubilation. The advent of the Premier League only made things worse. In 1994, 20 years after Law’s goal, United clinched a second consecutive league title. City finished sixteenth.
Despite those on-field failures – indeed, perhaps because of them – City has successfully cultivated a reputation as a club for real Mancunians, an honest, hard-working sporting institution dedicated to “giving back to the community.” Before 2008, that was supposed to be the key difference between United and City: Old Trafford was a corporate hellhole, and the City of Manchester Stadium (now simply “The Etihad”) was a place for real Mancs to do whatever it is real Mancs do. Several years after millions of Arab pounds had rendered the “Real Manchester” thing amusingly ironic, City fans greeted the transfer of Carlos Tevez to City from United with a billboard that read, “Welcome to Manchester.”
Tevez wasn’t the first footballer to play for both United and City, but he certainly was the most symbolic. In September 2008, the fantastically wealthy Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment bought Manchester City from Thaksin Shinawatra, the Thai politician whose bright idea it was to give Sven Goran Eriksson a job. ADUG immediately paid 30 million pounds for Real Madrid’s want-away star Robinho — fittingly, a long-term Chelsea target.
New City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak insisted that he wouldn’t do “crazy stuff” – but only to undermine himself by assuring fans that “it makes sense for us to build a dynasty.” A year later, the billboard went up. It felt like a power shift. In the fall of 2009, City’s new spending power reduced Sir Alex Ferguson to a petty rant in which he famously referred to United’s rivals as “noisy neighbors.” A couple of months later, ADUG replaced City manager Mark Hughes with the slick, scarf-wearing Roberto Mancini. City has since spent hundreds of millions of pounds on transfers, salaries and ambitious infrastructure improvements.
Manchester City’s sudden rise and ridiculous spending have angered a lot of righteous old-timers, many of whom are, perhaps not coincidentally, Manchester United supporters. The old questions about “fairness” and “the state of the modern game,” the ones critics forgot about when Chelsea finally began to struggle, have resurfaced. Liverpool fans mourn the fact a rich history replete with pornographic boot rooms, European Cups and quotable Bill Shankly tidbits doesn’t equate to an Asian fan base, successful sponsorship deals and whatever Xabi Alonso wasn’t getting. But the fiercest complainers aren’t really concerned about a few clichéd sporting concepts, or even about the source of City’s money. Even if the club’s coffers were filled with nothing but Nobel Peace Prize winnings, fans of teams in the Big Something (three, four, five – you decide) would have moaned, because the only thing United and Arsenal fans hate more than losing is sharing the privilege of winning.
So you can imagine United fans’ consternation when, last May, Sergio Aguero’s stoppage-time goal won Manchester City the Premier League title. So what if City doesn’t have a classic Broadway show tune to play before matches? The players are creating their own history. The fans have recently perfected the “Poznan.” While Chelsea supporters are frequently described as “plastic” or accused of “glory-seeking,” City’s followers attract almost universal respect. They’ve given up on the “real Manchester” barbs in favor of self-deprecation and good-humored cynicism. Even as City closed in on Premier League glory last season, its fans refused to take anything for granted, reminding journalists that the club consistently falls at the last hurdle, if not the first one. It’s impossible to hate supporters ingenuous enough to turn their backs to the play and bounce good-naturedly.
Of course, last season wasn’t all fun and games. Carlos Tevez, he of the provocative billboard, was sent into exile for refusing to play in a vital Champions League game. Whether he will behave this time around is difficult to predict. And it’s impossible to forget the wild antics of Mario Balotelli, the Italian striker who, as well as scoring goals and winning trophies wherever he plays, once set off a firework in his own bathroom.
Mancini has spent the entire summer complaining about City’s lack of activity in the transfer market. With UEFA’s Financial Fair Play plan set to be implemented next season, chairman Brian Marwood wants to offload out-of-favor players like Emmanuel Adebayor and Roque Santa Cruz before he looks at new signings. But no club can match the astronomical wages City is paying, and neither Adebayor nor Santa Cruz is interested in a pay cut. Just when things should be settling down for the Premier League champions, the boardroom is beginning to heat up. Over the past two years, City has developed a fan base and, more importantly, constructed a winning team. But nothing is ever easy on the blue side of Manchester. Destiny may not be distributed equally, but a moment of peace, it seems, is something that even City’s billions can’t buy.