It’s Not Just About What Manchester City Won

Watford’s players sat silent, disconsolate in the Wembley changing room. The 2019 F.A. Cup final was “their moment,” as the team’s long-serving captain, Troy Deeney, had put it. Like most of his teammates, Deeney had never won a major honor. The club had not graced the final, English soccer’s great gala occasion, for 35 years.

Winning was unlikely, of course — “massive underdogs,” Deeney had called his team — given that Manchester City, the repeat Premier League champion, stood in the way. But then the willing suspension of disbelief is the F.A. Cup’s calling card. Watford’s official slogan for the game was “Imagine If.” The whole town had been decked out in the team’s yellow and black. The final was portrayed as the apex of Deeney’s personal redemption arc.

And then reality bit. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City tore Watford to shreds. A two-goal lead at halftime turned into a 6-0 rout by the end, the heaviest defeat in the final in more than a century. Deeney led his team to collect their silver medals, and then into a hushed, forlorn changing room. “There’s nothing much for anyone to say,” the striker Andre Gray said.

The 2019 F.A. Cup is among the more than a dozen trophies won by Manchester City in the last decade.Credit…Neil Hall/EPA, via Shutterstock

The statement surreptitiously uploaded to the Premier League’s website on Monday morning — the one confirming that the most popular sports league on the planet had charged its serial champion with more than a hundred rules breaches, spread over the length of its meteoric rise from self-identifying also-ran to one of the world’s richest, most powerful clubs — read a little like a list of artificial colorings and preservatives.

Season by season, the statement detailed each of City’s alleged transgressions: rules B.13, C.71, C.72, C.75 (amended to C.79) and C.80 for the year 2009-10; B.13, C.78, C.79, C.86 and C.87 for the next campaign, and so on.

The doom-scroll of letters and numbers, the product of four years of painstaking investigation and interminable legal wrangling between the Premier League and one of its shareholders, ran and ran, adding up to what is almost certainly the greatest scandal to have hit the Premier League in the 31 years of its existence.

The violations, after all, are serious. City stands accused of inflating the value of sponsorship deals so it could meet the league’s cost control measures; of failing to provide financial information “that gives a true and fair view of the club’s financial position”; of not disclosing contractual payments to managers and players; of failing to cooperate with the investigation itself.

And so, too, are the potential consequences. The club, needless to say, “robustly” denies any wrongdoing, and remains bullishly confident that it will be able to clear its name when it is given chance to present what it called the “irrefutable” evidence in its defense to an independent panel in the months and, most likely, years to come.

If — and it is if, at this stage — Manchester City is found guilty, though, then the punishments can begin: The panel, according to the league’s statutes, has free rein to issue whatever penalty it sees fit. Domestic precedent ranges from heavy fines to points deductions. More severe sanctions, such as stripping City of its titles and even expelling the club from the league, are at least theoretically possible.

It would not, in that case, be merely City that suffered. So, too, would the Premier League. Having to place an asterisk next to more than a decade of its proudly melodramatic history — including some of its most iconic moments — would bring with it considerable blowback for the competition itself.

And yet to dress the Premier League’s case in those terms — to cast it as a battle for power between two bodies, to present it as a bellwether for greater regulation, to frame it as a political event — is to miss the point.

It is easy to lose sight of it, amid the arcane legalese and the stark list of rules and provisions and clauses that City is accused of breaking, but at the heart of the allegations made by the Premier League is a human cost.

Sports only work if there is a common set of rules. It is possible, of course, to disagree with those rules, to feel that they are arbitrary or antiquated or written by a self-interested elite to protect their own positions, the view that City (among others) has taken of soccer’s attempts at cost control. And in some cases, that dissidence is more than legitimate.

But the idea that when tyranny is law, revolution is duty does not hold, not in sports. It is not just that the integrity of the whole activity rests on a common acceptance of the rules — the assumption that everyone, be they teams or athletes, are competing under the same conditions — it is that the very meaning rests on it. The rules give the exercise purpose.

Raheem Sterling and Manchester City held off Mo Salah and Liverpool by a point in the 2019 title race, one of three times in the last decade City lifted the trophy ahead of a second-place Liverpool.Credit…Peter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock

If it is found that City was disregarding those rules, no matter how unjust that club might consider them to be, then the real damage — rather than reputational — has been to the teams it has faced along the way.

Sympathy might, perhaps, be in short supply for Manchester United and Liverpool, the two clubs who have narrowly lost Premier League titles to City in the last decade or so. They are, after all, the most successful clubs in English history, able to console themselves with myriad different glories.

But they would not be the only ones to have lost out. Stoke City lost the F.A. Cup final to Manchester City in 2011. It was Stoke’s first major final since 1972. Three years later, City beat Sunderland to the League Cup. A few years after that, Watford went to Wembley in 2019, and were “blown away,” as Andre Gray put it.

Manchester City deserved to win all of those games, of course. On each occasion, it was much the better team. Its opponents accepted their fates with good grace. They did not quibble with the result. “We know how far ahead of us they are,” Gray said, even as his teammates were coming to terms with their humiliation in the sanctuary of the changing room.

That City was better is not in question. What is at stake, instead, is whether it was in a position to reach all of those finals, to win all of those trophies, while operating under the same rules and restrictions as everyone else. If it was not, then there is no punishment, no matter how harsh, that restores what has been lost.

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