Anyone who has survived this week without getting trapped in a cupboard with no news from the outside world will have heard about Manchester City’s two-year-ban from the UEFA Champions League. Rather than go into the minute details of why the clubs has been banned, I think it is far more interesting to use this incident as a springboard to a broader discussion on the place of external investment within in sports.
In the early 2000s Roman Abramovich utterly transformed Chelsea with his takeover as did Sheikh Mansour when he took over Manchester City in 2008. Nowadays it seems as soon as there is even a whiff of a potential sale of a football club, more foreign billionaires are linked with potential takeovers much like Mohammed bin Salman has been with Manchester United. Thus, the concept of external (and often foreign) money being invested in British sports is here to stay. This idea of bringing external wealth into sports is by no means a novel concept. In 416BC, the wealthy Athenian general Alcibiades entered seven chariots into one race, while Philip II of Macedon likewise sponsored a chariot and saw it win at the Ancient Olympic Games. The reason these public figures invested their personal fortunes in sporting endeavours still resonates today: a desire to enhance their image, show off their wealth and to just have fun. Thus, one would be hard-pressed to argue that this idea of spending one’s own money within sports is by any means a new one, and consequently, should it be criticised?
Indeed, in many fields, spending one’s personal fortune acquired through other means is not only not looked down upon but in fact lauded. One of Donald Trump’s favourite catchphrases on his way to the presidency was that he was “entirely self-funded” and was not influenced by “donors and special interests.” Rather than being seen as a billionaire using his personal wealth to meddle in politics, this was praised as meaning he wasn’t beholden to other groups. Some might argue that, by owners funding football clubs out of their own pockets, it diminishes the say sponsors and other external groups may have over the club’s activities which might be a good thing. There were certainly rumblings about the potential influence of Adidas (Manchester United’s shirt sponsor) in the club’s acquisition of Paul Pogba and questions can undoubtedly be raised as to whether, due to the club’s financial dependence on their sponsor, a footballing decision (whether to buy Pogba) was influenced by financial pressure; a billionaire foreign owner able to self-fund his club’s actions in the transfer market would certainly diminish this potential for leverage.
Financial Fair Play was introduced, ostensibly, to stop clubs from spending radically outside their means by the way or their owners’ personal bank accounts. However, as mentioned above, the idea of using one’s personal fortune to fund sporting activities goes back a long time and the same angst against this influx of external money is not replicated in any other competitive area of life such as politics or any forms of business. Thus, before we all cheer the demise of Manchester City’s European ambitions, perhaps we should first consider whether the rules they are alleged to have broken are actually appropriate to begin with and whether we ned to recognise that, just as many other elements of football have evolved, wealthy owners driving clubs into Europe’s elite should be seen as fair and part of the sport. After all, would it be fair for Manchester City to have always been second to Manchester United purely because they couldn’t compete financially with them or is the fairest process to simply allow clubs to earn and spend money in whatever way they like?