November 28, 2023
Well, that’s that done. So. What now? Perhaps the funniest moment of the Champions League final at a distant, smoke‑tainted Ataturk Stadium was th.......

Well, that’s that done. So. What now? Perhaps the funniest moment of the Champions League final at a distant, smoke‑tainted Ataturk Stadium was the sight of the tuxedo-clad Hungarian classical musician Adam Gyorgy thundering his way through the tournament tune on a gleaming pitchside grand piano pre‑kick‑off, trying really hard to give this hammy faux‑anthem some verve and twinkle.

All the while, 100 metres off to his left, 10,000 blue-shirted Manchester City fans doggedly booed every flourish, every attempt to inject a little feeling into the occasion. No, Adam. Please. It’s really not you. It’s just, well, it’s kind of a long story.

It was that kind of evening, full of surprising tones and textures. Although in many ways this was also the perfect Big Football final. Here we have a global TV product staged inside a dictator-built stadium, featuring a dictator‑owned champion team and another in a state of ongoing FFP‑induced financial levitation. And in the middle of that lighted bowl the old familiar centrepiece, a game that is still capable of communicating beauty and pleasure, watched by a group of people still capable of being moved by the spectacle, still able to feel something, even if that something is the urge to boo an earnest Hungarian pianist.

The first lesson from Saturday is that City are fine and deserving champions. This is by some distance the best football team in Europe, a model of graft, team‑building and creative tactics. City may or may not, as L’Équipe suggested in its report on the game, be “moral in the way in which the club has built its strength”, but the team itself is a model of aesthetics and good practice. Not to mention, as is often overlooked, “a generous and magnificent loser” in their previous defeats, which will make it even sweeter now to win with a bit of a grind.

Rodri scores against Internazionale at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Pep went with the super-secure quadruple centre-back system in Istanbul, which has coincided with a powerful drawing down of the shutters. There is a tactical irony here. Signing Erling Haaland, the ultimate razor edge, has had the unexpected consequence of transforming City into an annihilating defensive force. The four centre‑backs are in part to compensate for Haaland’s lack of touches higher up the pitch and the ever-constant fear – Pep’s great demon – of counterattack. You wonder how many Champions League titles they might have won if Guardiola had simply played his best pure defenders more often. It probably means something that City won in Istanbul with Haaland completing only three passes in 90 minutes.

Other positives: by the end City had four English outfield players on the pitch, evidence that this outsourced entity can still speak to the parks and pitches and levels down the pyramid that gave us players such as Kyle Walker and John Stones. City have played beautiful football, scored wonderful goals, changed the game around them. The players seem nice. The ripped jeans Euro-bro outfits were pretty cool.

And yet, of course, there is another game here. City’s victory means this was also a day when football changed in a very basic sense. For the first time the world’s premier club competition was won by a nation‑state team. The most powerful, most successful club in the world is now owned, funded and run as a public relations glove puppet by a repressive nation state.

Those who watch and consume this sport don’t have to care about any of this. It’s not the end of anything just yet. The cartel will survive. Barcelona and Real Madrid have mortgaged the future to keep up with the present. Those good old boys will still be drinking whisky and rye. In any case footballing success has never really been pure. Every club era is built out of ruthlessness, money and egomaniacal owners.

This, though, is something new, a club era built instead from state power and the hands of an anti‑democratic state, a machinery that is, by its nature, not soft or benevolent or free of collateral baggage.

Before the game kicked off the sense of power-flash was present, as ever, in the stuff at the edges. The VIP tunnel had the usual ooze of flâneuring celebs. Here is Aleksander Ceferin, Uefa’s chief executive, fingers crossed, trying not to look at the travel chaos behind him. Here is Luís Figo in sunglasses so large they seemed to cover at least 40% of his face. Here is the great Salt Bae, the world’s leading celebrity meat-slicer, working the carpet, never at any stage removing his salting arm from behind his back, always on.

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak with the Champions League trophy, the culmination of more than a decade of investment. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In the event Salt turned out to be the only notorious butcher in the house as rumours of an appearance by Bashar al-Assad of Syria proved unfounded. But other power brokers did turn up. Sheikh Mansour of Manchester City was present to see his second ever game. Just as significant, his brother was also there, Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the current president of the UAE. Family business, meet family club. And this is at least an unobstructed view of the power dynamic in play.

There is no need to run through the human rights record of City’s owners. Repressive laws and the crushing of free speech, war crimes and “black sites” in Yemen, a conflict for which the UK continues to supply arms. How about the arbitrary detention and deportation of 375 African migrant workers not so long ago, seized from their homes “on the basis of skin colour”, locked up, subjected to degrading treatment without any form of process, according to an Amnesty International report. One Nigerian worker reported being handcuffed in her night clothes and sexually assaulted by police before being taken to a prison camp. As she complained, the police officers simply said: “Emirates give. Emirates take.”

And yes, nobody really wants to talk about this. The football is on. And these are, after all, the sports pages. But the fact is the people making this part of the football chat are not journalists, haters or Manchester United fans. The people making us talk about this are the government of Abu Dhabi, who insist on pushing sport as their personal publicity megaphone, source of soft structural power, wealth extraction, and reverse‑colonial interest in biddable post-industrial cities.

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City’s ascent is total victory for politics in football. What it means now is more of the same from other interested parties, with all the attendant fallout and compromise. As Qatar stalks the fringes, as Saudi Arabia embeds itself at Newcastle United, the prospect of a regional ego-duel played out through this fragile old cultural industry should be a cause for genuine concern. Take your eyes off the money. This is not how sport is supposed to work.

It will mean more strain too on the financial rules, and more narrowing of the always-narrow pyramid. The financial cheating charges against City, all denied, feel like a structural inevitability, a basic friction between the approach to business of a multi-billionaire absolute monarchy, and the urge to protect the existing order, good and bad, in a Victorian community sport.

But the fact is the rules do exist. Victory in the final comes exactly three years since City completed their appeal in Lausanne against being banned from the same competition, charges that were then overturned. There will presumably be medals now too for the selected 11 that day (yes: City brought 11 lawyers to the courtroom), all part of that lingering threat of simply consuming European football’s governing body in litigation, one vast footballing Slapp (strategic lawsuit against public participation) suit.

Who knows? Perhaps City can now take that same spirit into the domestic courtroom and complete an unprecedented double, taking down both Uefa’s in-house legal team and the 115 Premier League charges currently outstanding. Perhaps the question will be posed in time as to who is the real key signing of the current era? Erling Haaland, king of goals? Or Lord Pannick, king’s counsel?

Pep Guardiola and Khaldoon al-Mubarak celebrate beating Inter. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Either way, expect more now, more fuel for what seems the most likely outcome of the next few years, a basic schism in the way elite club football will be run; and a further junking of those old structures which, frankly, go right against the governing ethos of billionaire globalism.

The same goes, for now, for the Premier League’s dominance of world football, the hoovering up of talent, expertise, coaches, players, eyeballs, power. It is no coincidence that City bolted on Barcelona’s own in-house brain trust, then rose to a similar position of dominance, while Barcelona have done brainless and self‑destructive things. And this is of course a system that will ultimately devour itself, kill the competition, suck the product dry. Nation state propaganda-football gives. Nation state propaganda-football takes.

As a final note there is the wider note, not so much of unease but of coldness. What does this model of sport actually express? The pre‑existing expertise of others? The triumph of global capitalism? The fact that boundless government-backed financial stability, plus boundless talent and expertise will ultimately equal success? The overriding emotion at the end of City’s victory in Istanbul seemed to be relief, satisfaction at a job completed, an outcome that always seemed inevitable, not so much heart and soul and unbound celebrations as the quiet satisfaction of well-to-do middle‑aged tourists visiting the Grand Canyon because it’s on the bucket list and coming away saying, “well, it was a trek but I’m glad we went”.

At times it can feel as though the dominant emotion of City’s transformation is anger, defiance, a hunger for incoherent online argument. It is a great shame that there is no coherent sense of care, duty and regulation in any form of club ownership, not just this one, no sense of caution and scepticism, just sharp elbows and the desire, lets face it, for a little easy escapism. That structure is now fully embedded. And as of Saturday night the game has changed for good, moving just a little further down its own unmapped journey.

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