Manchester City Is Power

In lieu of a true last-day nail-biter for the ages, the kind that briefly seemed possible but quickly flickered out, Manchester City gave us a narratively satisfying end to the Premier League season.

It took just 79 seconds for the Citizens to all but eradicate the threat of a West Ham upset, and with it the neutrals’ and Arsenal fans’ hopes of a title-deciding slip. Phil Foden, recently named the league’s player of the season, stood inside that little zone just outside and to the right of the penalty box’s crown, the very site of origin for so much of the damage he has wrought in this consecrating season of his, awaiting a Bernardo Silva pass. As the ball zipped toward him from the right wing, Foden, in a single motion, feathered the ball toward the center of the pitch with one touch of his left foot, turned his body nearly 180 degrees to follow it, and escaped one challenge from a West Ham player who’d been baffled by the fluidity of the turn. Coming off of his instep, the ball rolled as gently and precisely as if an unhurried pair of hands had spun it there, and not a harried foot that simultaneously wheeled an entire body around inside the most valuable sector of a pitch upon which the championship of the best soccer league on the planet was being decided. After turning, Foden sped up to the ball and applied his second touch, which sent it on a spin-less flight into the far reaches of the West Ham goal. It was almost identical to the beauty he scored against Real Madrid last month, and the replication of such a sumptuous touch, turn, and finish only made it more impressive: the extraordinary made routine.

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Sixteen minutes later, Foden had the ball in the back of the net again, his 19th goal in the league and 26th in all competitions. It’s been an incredible year for the Englishman. Putting up those kinds of numbers at the heart (figuratively, as one of the team’s core players, and also literally, since he’s increasingly found himself positioned in the center of the pitch) of a title-contending Man City team is exactly what fans of his club and/or his talent have long wished for him. An academy product breaking through with the club that made him, the one he’s rooted for since childhood, and fully blossoming once there—these are the kinds of priceless situations that make following the sport so special.

But Sunday’s match was not completely devoid of anxiety for the home faithful. Late in the first half, West Ham attacker Mohammed Kudus smacked in an acrobatic bicycle kick to halve City’s advantage. Around the same time, Arsenal, the other title hopeful, equalized the score in their match against Everton after going down a goal early. The state of affairs at halftime were such that just two more goals—a West Ham equalizer and an Arsenal go-ahead strike—would mean the Gunners would take the top spot.

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Even then, any concerned Citizen couldn’t have been all that distressed. It took Arsenal until the 89th minute to take the lead over Everton, and by that time City had already restored its two-goal lead. The scorer of City’s third was, appropriately, Rodri. The Spanish midfielder’s season might not have been quite as flashy as Foden’s, but he was just as instrumental in the Sky Blues’ success. A large part of the inspiration for manager Pep Guardiola’s latest, typically exotic tactical wrinkle—in this case, using a center back as an auxiliary midfielder—was to free Rodri to get further forward. Though a natural defensive midfielder, Rodri has a remarkable sense of timing, spacing, passing, and even shooting in the attacking third. The license to push up the pitch that he’s enjoyed the past couple seasons has really unleashed him, and that plus his iron mentality has seen him turn up regularly with goals in huge moments—most memorably, the equalizer against Aston Villa as part of the last-day heroics from two years ago, and the Champions League–winner last year. Sunday’s goal was his eighth of the league season, which along with his nine assists makes for a pretty stunning return for a player of his position. There’s a not midfielder in the world who can match Rodri’s influence and impact over the past couple years. Even with Foden going crazy this season, Erling Haaland’s goals, and in light of Kevin De Bruyne’s inconsistent health over the years, Rodri has emerged as City’s best player.

And that was how Manchester City won the Premier League: comprehensively, with only a small wobble from which the team quickly recovered, off of brilliance from Foden and Rodri. That’s four top-division titles in a row for the Citizens, a feat no team had ever before achieved in all 125 years of English soccer history. It’s not the only historical first Guardiola and a handful of these same Citizens have attained. Since the EFL League Cup’s inaugural season in 1960, no English team had ever won it, the FA Cup, and the first-tier league in the same season until Man City did so in 2019. League champions a consecutive four times, winners of six of the last seven EPL titles, England’s first and only domestic treble winners, winners of the true treble last year—the magnitude of Manchester City’s success is epochal. Though it isn’t the single greatest run from a team in English soccer history—I’d still put City below the Manchester United teams of the 1990s and especially the Liverpool teams of the 1980s, the latter of which won 10 league titles and four European Cups in a 15-year span—it is nevertheless one of the most powerful periods of dominance the country has ever seen, and makes them the defining team of the post–Alex Ferguson era. Any discussion of what English soccer has been over the past decade—a pivotal period in which the league has enjoyed an unprecedented influx of money, player and managerial talent, and attention, becoming unquestionably the best and most popular league in the world—has to start with Man City.

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But any conversation about City as an institution and its place in the game has to include the ownership angle. The typical moralizing about the oil and oligarch clubs is tired at this point, and, in my opinion, unconvincing. Yes, the Premier League has brought 115 charges against Man City for alleged breaches of domestic and continental financial rules. No, I do not find that particularly scandalizing, nor do I see it as this big competition-corrupting advantage that fundamentally undermines everything the players and coaches have achieved on the field. The game is and has always been about money. The game behind the game, dating back to soccer’s early amateur days in the 19th century, has always been to build a club up by funneling money from outside the sport into it. City should be held to the rules, and if the club is found guilty, the league is perfectly justified to bring what it considers a fitting punishment. But regardless of the case’s outcome, I’m not going to pretend like I’m so offended that the club got so good by doing the thing that makes every other great club good, even if they cut corners to get there.

That doesn’t mean I or anyone else should ignore the darker implications of Man City’s on-field success and how it relates to Abu Dhabi’s designs on the club and the sport as a whole. If City is an era-defining exemplar because of what the players and coaches have won, it is also an era-defining exemplar of the greater sportswashing phenomenon. The aim of sportswashing is often considered to be for an otherwise shady person or institution or country to improve its own image by association with the beloved sporting institution or event. I think this is a slight misconception. I don’t think, to use this case as an example, the Abu Dhabi royal family believed people would think the UAE is “cool” or even “good” if they succeeded in turning Manchester City into a historically great team. And if they did believe that, they were greatly mistaken; nothing has brought more attention to the UAE’s awful human rights record than Man City’s ascendency.

Instead, I think it has more to do with power. Regardless of how exactly you feel about Abu Dhabi, I’m certain that you now think of them much more frequently than you did before. There is power in that. In addition, even if you think it’s gross the way City has flouted the FA’s and UEFA’s spending rules en route to building its English juggernaut, you have to recognize the sheer financial might it took for the owners make it happen, and the brazenness with which they disregarded the haughty Europeans’ norms to beat them at their own game. The same goes for Qatar with PSG and the World Cup, and Saudi Arabia with LIV Golf and now Newcastle. Qatar’s late decision to prohibit beer at the 2022 World Cup was instructive. The sportswashers aren’t so much trying to get you to see them as the good guys according to your own terms, but rather to make their names as villains who are above caring about what you think as they go about achieving their ends right in your own backyard.

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That’s the part that gets closer to what’s actually objectionable about the Man City phenomenon than all the hand-wringing about inflated sponsorships. What Manchester City stands for is that sportswashing works. The Citizens currently possess some of the very best players, probably the world’s strongest and deepest roster, the man who will likely go down as the greatest manager of all time, one of the game’s savviest backroom staffs that constantly replenishes the team with talent, a renowned academy that has already produced multiple legitimate stars, every single trophy, and success at a level never before seen in the long and illustrious history of English soccer. All of it was born from an immoral government’s efforts to flex its power by proving that there is no god mightier than the dollar, and they have a whole lot of dollars.

While it’s good to draw distinctions between the two—the team on the field and the owners who’ve put the team together—it’s impossible to wholly separate them. No matter how impressive a feat I may find City’s fourpeat, or how moved I am by Foden’s turns and Rodri’s strikes and De Bruyne’s passes and Haaland’s runs, or how awed I am by Guardiola’s genius, each part will forever be associated with Abu Dhabi’s sportswashing campaign. A victory for Manchester City is necessarily a victory for Abu Dhabi. I like to believe that the collective, transcendent power of the good in sports can overcome even this, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that the battle to do so will be a tough one. One thing’s for sure: one side has gotten really good at winning.


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