It seems to me that the real political task in our contemporary society is to criticize the workings of institutions, particularly the ones that appear to be neutral and independent, and to attack them in such a way that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them, will finally be unmasked so that one can fight against them.
It was a brisk March morning when I walked into the Cask ‘n Flagon, the Boston bar sat across the street from Fenway Park: a venue for some of baseball’s greatest, bordering on surreal, moments. Today was a day for soccer, though: good old-fashioned Premier League football. Manchester City brushed aside Fulham at Craven Cottage, 2-0, and the result was never in doubt. During halftime, I walked across the bar to greet a man about as tall as my shoulders, but whose presence was greater than anyone in the building. He’s partaken in a few surreal moments over the years himself.
Shaun Wright-Phillips is a Manchester City legend who managed to make his name before the club had such a large platform. Wright-Phillips is a through-and-through Blue of the Mancunian persuasion. He cried when he was sold to Chelsea in 2005, but the €32m sale was a coup for the struggling Noisy Neighbors. Back then there was no Sheikh to bankroll a wage bill featuring some of the highest-paid players in the world, even though it came soon after, when the Abu Dhabi United Group bought City in 2008.
The retired Englishman believes the family atmosphere that once made City feel like home still exists at the Etihad Stadium. Wright-Phillips would not deny, though, that the club has been changed forever. England’s champions have, in his eyes, “always been destined for great things and we’re just lucky the perfect owner group came in and took over because it could have easily gone in the other direction. The owner group that came in actually has the same amount of passion for the club that the fans and the players do.”
If Sheikh Mansour Al Nahyan—happily lauded by chanting Sky Blue supporters recently—does have a passion for the club, he shows it only monetarily and momentarily. Well over a billion dollars have been pumped into the club since City were purchased by the Sheikh, who himself very rarely takes the trip up to Manchester. Nevertheless, it is his family’s petro-fortune that has propelled Manchester City from wannabe contenders to outright champions of England four times since the takeover. The money has done something for City that nothing else ever did, or could, for that matter.
I understand why Wright-Phillips sparkles with admiration on the topic of Abu Dhabi. Our club has been transformed in a matter of seasons from a financially unstable Premier League team to a superstar-laden squad which now, under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage, is one of the most talented in the world. But he’s wrong. I don’t have much sympathy for those who ignore the larger picture. The reason why City have been so successful is due to financial stimulus from a backward regime of torturers, war criminals, and downright evil people. To see Abu Dhabi’s ownership of Manchester City as anything other than an attempt to “sportswash” their dirty image clean is a failure of judgement.
To attack Manchester City for anything besides poor sporting performance might be construed as overtly political, so I find it imperative to showcase just why I’ve begun to think the way I have. Years ago, I never considered Abu Dhabi to be much of an issue, to the extent I ever thought about the ownership behind my beloved club. Some might paint my political transformation after the 2016 election of Donald Trump as “radical”. I consider myself a leftist or a socialist and this identity has profoundly changed how I see City and powers-that-be in general.
You see, leftism to me is not radical at all. When someone warns of upsetting the political balance by pushing too hard for radical reform, I have a few questions: Radical reform for whom? Are the 500,000 homeless Americans in such a position that their housing would be “radical”? Does the fact that a cadre of billionaires profits off war and the suffering of many strike you as a balance that shan’t be upset? When I began asking myself these questions which outright liberalism, and certainly not conservatism, cannot answer adequately, I became drawn to the far left.
Once that tipping point of a changed political mindset is reached, there become far fewer institutions one refuses to criticize. The Black Lives Matter protests against police violence echo a lot of the left’s rhetoric around racial injustice. This same mentality applies not only to the police, but to the military, to imperial injustices, and to the system of capitalism in its entirety, and everything in between. Unfortunately for me, this has meant asking hard questions about ownership in football, about a club I love. A part of my life that will never quite be the same again.
That cold afternoon sharing a warm smile with Shaun Wright-Phillips was over a year ago. This past February, UEFA announced a ban on Manchester City that rocked the footballing world. City face £25 million in fines for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations, but the real kicker is a two-year ban from the Champions League. At the zenith of the club’s powers, amidst a reign of Pep Guardiola’s terror imposed on wailing opponents, European victory has become blockaded. But the ban, as I understand it, is deserved, not just for the FFP violations but for the role of Abu Dhabi in the club’s recent success. Like a mobster imprisoned for money laundering instead of murder, City have been prosecuted for a crime much less egregious than those of their owners.
It’s not just football that’s been turned on its head in recent months. As I write the words you’re reading, we are subjected to self-imposed lockdowns to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. An isolation that goes against everything our bodies need: fresh air, space to stretch our legs, and quality human interaction. We’re naturally drawn to everything a quarantine is not, so we are suffering. But our suffering pales in comparison to the fates of those COVID-19 patients. The coronavirus has certainly drawn us apart physically, but the sentiment behind our lockdowns is one of camaraderie and love for others. This is a selfless act.
When news first broke that Italy’s Serie A would suspend its season amidst coronavirus concerns, we saw in real time how politics intersects with football. Banning Italian calcio is a political decision, because the concerns are scientific and public health policy is politics. The coronavirus outbreak is just the most recent example of politics and sport, conjoined as one. This has been the case even before wunderkind Austrian striker Matthias Sindelar was murdered by the Nazi regime, before Qatar won a corrupt World Cup bid and oversaw the deaths of slave laborers. Politics, however you define it, is inextricably tied to sport.
Johan Cruijff would have agreed with me, theoretically speaking. Totaalvoetbal was a representation of this maxim: one player’s actions are not performed in a vacuum, for they have an effect on the entire team. Cruijff felt it necessary to put out eleven players who could all dribble, pass, and defend. In fact, the false dichotomy between defense and attack has been summarily destroyed by many analysts. Defense as a craft has no more importance in your team’s box as it does in the final third; the failure of a frontline to effectively press the ball puts pressure on the midfield, which draws the defensive line out of position. Is a Liverpool counter-press really a defensive action if it has an offensive consequence?
You see, football has done us a great favour by showing how events interrelate to each other. Its lesson is crucial now more than ever. With the coronavirus outbreak in full swing, we could indirectly save lives by staying home, reducing contact with people and objects, and taking care of our bodies and minds. But many will object to this notion as the act of staying home doesn’t seem, on the surface, to make much of a difference. Like those who object to political discourse within the football bubble, they are wrong.
I understand that conflating a simple game, football, with one of the most egregious institutions in the world—the Abu Dhabi Royal Family—is seen as taking things a few steps too far. I get it! Sometimes all I want in the world is a quiet Saturday morning, coffee in hand, watching Kevin de Bruyne ping a 30-yard pass on my TV. I don’t want to think about how the UAE is part of a coalition bombing innocent people in Yemen. People need boundaries—we don’t want to be talking about totalitarian states all the time.
But to plainly disregard Abu Dhabi as a subject of criticism within the confines of football discourse? I scoff at the notion.
We cannot simply ignore the fact that City are owned by Abu Dhabi. Events like a nearly double-digit win over Watford or a centurion of points would not be possible without that bankrolled squad. When we cheer a Premier League win, we cheer the source of the success: not only the players, but Guardiola and his staff, and the financial might behind the operation as well. Put bluntly by Miguel Delaney, “repeated studies…have highlighted that [wages] condition results to a greater degree than anything else” in European football. If the wages beget wins, and the totalitarian state begets wages, to whom do we owe at least a portion of gratitude?
There is a very simple explanation to why City fans—individuals not generally regarded as supporters of war crimes—might fail to engage a discussion of this nature. We see City every week through our own eyes, but we very rarely see the atrocities committed by the UAE. Nicholas McGeehan, who wrote a popular article on the subject, knows that it’s one thing to watch football with an unconscious awareness that atrocities are going on behind the scenes. A whole other viewpoint becomes visible once the crimes are laid before you, in his case through research for Amnesty International.
There’s a concept in psychology termed the “availability heuristic” which I find to be perfectly applicable to the case of Manchester City. Psychologists Morris and Maisto define it as such: “In the absence of full and accurate information, we often base decisions on whatever information is most readily available to memory, even though this information may not be accurate.” Abu Dhabi entered the football market not because they love the sport, but because they want an international audience to use sport to define them, not their egregious actions. As one of millions of international football fans, when I hear “UAE” or “Abu Dhabi,” it’s not human rights violations which come to mind, but a football club. This is more than understandable; since most of us aren’t Middle East scholars, we most closely associate the Emirati with sport. It doesn’t matter that we know about their record: it’s not what our mind recalls most easily.
When an entity becomes forgotten to our memory, like the source of City’s success, we are bound to make errors in judgement. We might see pictures of Sheikh Mansour and shamefully roll our eyes, but we won’t take action. Diana Eltahawy of Human Rights Watch confirmed many of my criticisms levied here at the UAE. Condemning this regime in any way possible should be a priority. Yet condemnation, as football fans will know, often does so little. For as long as the UAE owns Manchester City, they own the hearts and minds of the club’s supporters, at least tacitly. Football is a necessary product for many people, just as oil—the lifeblood of modern industrial society—is so precious that we can only condemn backwards petro-states in letter, but not action.
Early in my football fandom, I loved watching Eli Mengem present “Derby Days” for Copa 90. The short productions provided a true look at the fans of clubs around Europe, offering a perspective quite unlike the skybox camera view. Eli’s passion for the game manifests not only when a magnificent goal is scored, but when meeting genuinely interesting supporters. Derby Days represents everything that football should be, not because it focuses on the game and the game only, but because it brings to light outside factors as well.
When Eli recently appeared on the Tifo Football Podcast he lamented how “fucking depressing” it is that football “distracts people from what they should really be worrying about.” There’s a lot of messed up stuff out there, things that not only deserve more attention but require more attention if they are to not get out of hand. The true fans simultaneously love their sport and understand the importance of putting outside factors into play, especially when looking at their clubs.
Another guest on Tifo’s podcast, The Athletic’s Editor-in-Chief Alex Kay-Jelski, believes that “football is about escaping your life…Why do you watch football? Because it is the opposite of politics and Brexit and war and coronavirus, and I think [The Athletic’s] job is to provide that escape.”
People can and should use football as an outlet, a distraction from the worries of life. But to never consider football’s other implications, especially with how much time supporters spend thinking about their clubs, is a flawed view. When Michel Foucault called for the critique of seemingly neutral institutions, he was not exempting sport.
Shaun Wright-Phillips believes the Abu Dhabi regime cares about the City, both the club and of Manchester. It’s a sentimental notion, but dead wrong. Sheikh Mansour doesn’t care! He poured money into City’s coffers to please the fans, not because he cares about us, but for clout. That clout achieved by sportswashing is so effective that the memory of migrant workers being treated as slaves won’t cross your mind when you think of the UAE.
A club isn’t something easy to define. It includes the team and the fans, but does it include the owners? If we aren’t fully supportive of the owners, are we truly supporters of the club? I believe we are; Manchester City is not formed just by the people involved, but of collective memories. Memories were created long before Abu Dhabi took over the club and will continue to shape the people of Manchester for years after they leave. Many Americans never imagined a multiracial uprising against police authority, but now the power structure is trembling. Manchester City fans should use this moment to keep knocking at the door of social change. Anything less is preposterous!