For years, Manchester United was on top of the soccer world.
Manchester United won more trophies than any other team in England, pumped out talent like nobody else and did it all with the most recognizable manager in soccer history at the helm. The Red Devils were the team to beat in England, and their influence echoed around the globe. Just a few miles away, Manchester City was a small mid-table club that never looked like challenging its neighbor.
Then, in 2008, the Premier League — and its balance of power — was changed forever. City was floundering financially, and seemingly out of nowhere, in swooped a billionaire to save it. The club was bought by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the royal family of Abu Dhabi and the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates. On the last day of the 2008 summer transfer window, Manchester City signed Brazilian star Robinho from Real Madrid for $50 million.
Since taking over Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour has become the richest owner in the Premier League (his net worth is approximately $30 billion) and his group has reportedly pumped over one billion dollars into the club. In the last five years, City has spent a total of $734.10 million on bringing in new players, according to Transfermarkt.
With one of the most revered managers in the world at the helm, a squad dripping with talent and four Premier League titles in seven years, City established itself as one of the biggest clubs in Europe in just a decade.
The club smashed its own transfer records time and again. City broke Premier League records for highest point totals in a season and most goals scored. Under Pep Guardiola, the players produced a style of attacking soccer that took the world’s breath away.
Other teams watched all of this from the sidelines and attempted to replicate the club’s method of success. Chelsea signed the world’s most expensive goalkeeper last year. In the last three seasons, Liverpool has spent $122.75 million to catch up to its rivals. Manchester United broke the world-record transfer fee for Paul Pogba in 2016. After all, everyone wanted to be City.
Even City thought it was too big to fail, the Wall Street Journal’s Joshua Robinson wrote. Despite UEFA’s inquiry into the club’s finances, “City allegedly kept injecting cash into the club disguised as sponsorship or rights payments, all so it could keep acquiring talent like no one else in the sport. When investigators came knocking, City denied everything and attacked the very process.”
Now, Manchester City’s rose-colored veil has been yanked down with a flourish and the defending English champion is swimming in stormy waters. The club has been banned from the UEFA Champions League for the next two seasons following “serious breaches” of European soccer’s financial regulations and will also be fined $32.5 million, UEFA announced earlier this month. City, for its part, has vehemently denied the allegations and plans to fight the case with its best lawyers and all the money in its treasure chest. But the damage is done and the facade of invincibility has been shattered.
The City’s punishment is unprecedented and could cost the club upwards of $300 million in the long run. But it’s hard to feel sorry for a team that propped itself onto the world stage on piles and piles of money. If the ruling is upheld in the courts, City’s players will likely look to leave for better pastures, fans may abandon the club and all of City’s achievements could be undone in just two short, painful years.
Sports rarely pity teams that pay their way to championships and titles. It’s the same reason that no one is mourning over Paris St. Germain’s — valued at $1 billion — six straight early Champions League exits. It’s why the world went wild when Leicester City, a little-known team with a squad valued at £52.8 million (City’s squad, which finished fourth that year, cost £411 million), won the Premier League for the first time in the club’s 132-year history.
Sports worships one mantra: work harder than the other team and earn every single win. This is why we love the story of the underdog, the 1969 Miracle Mets or the 1980 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team. It’s why we respect the prominent youth soccer academies of Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Ajax. They prove to us that our most important values matter. They comfort us and the belief that we — rightly or not — cling to, that as long as you have talent and perseverance, money doesn’t matter.
Manchester City has shown us the ugly side of soccer; when money, not the love of the sport, becomes the philosophy of the club and gives you a false sense of invincibility. However, no one is invincible, and City’s shocking fall from grace is just beginning.
The Sports Girl is a weekly column that features a girl’s take on sports. Yes, a girl. Yes, on sports.
A version of this article appears in the Monday, Feb. 24, 2020, print edition. Email Bela Kirpalani at [email protected]