The allegations published by Der Spiegel are deeply dispiriting. The list of offences Manchester City are claimed to have committed is long and difficult to digest and, as yet, unproven. Nevertheless, it’s compelling evidence and will confirm many suspicions about the wealthiest clubs’ attitudes towards Financial Fair Play.
At the least, it puts paid to any notion of football still being contested across a vaguely level playing field. The truth, that we will deny and hide from for as long as possible, is that the top level of the sport is becoming a great waste of time and emotional energy. How invested can anyone be in something which is so obviously rigged? Even if a fan finds him or herself on the right side of that equation, standing in support of a team who enjoy fantastic advantages, how much satisfaction can they really derive from an essentially pre-destined outcome?
Those are long-term issues, the sort of ideological concerns which will have to fester for a while. For now though, the main source of discouragement is in the reaction to this battery of allegations. People don’t really care. Even those who are troubled have zero faith in football’s ability to right any of the wrongs which are proven. The assumption is that if a club is found to have cheated, they will just be assessed a menial punishment and then be allowed to find another way of replicating their advantage through some other clandestine skulduggery.
That lack of faith shows in the response. Not only is there zero expectation of any serious retribution, but many fans of the club accused seem remarkably untroubled by the revelations. There’s no shame. In this situation, the harshest criticism should be coming from inside – from those whose culture is being cheapened by this hearsay. Where are the supporters demanding clarity from their own team? At some point in history, there would be pitchforks gathering outside the Etihad and those holding them would all be dressed in sky blue. Not now. League titles and local supremacy count for more – and, regrettably, that would be the same in any other part of the country.
Given the tradition of club football and its role of representation, that provides the most compelling case that the sport has completely slipped its moorings. There’s no sense, yet, that anybody feels let down. You can forgive that reaction within the confines of an actual game, when pulses are racing and nothing matters but the score. But when the whistle blows and there’s time for reflection, surely the modern fan has enough moral substance to manage more than a shrug and a smirk?
For the moment, Der Spiegel are dealing in accusations rather than facts. But if that changes and if everything written over the past four days is proven accurate, does anyone expect to hear anything other than more misdirection and whataboutery in response? If they do they’re deeply naive, because contemporary football is almost sociopathic in its inability to distinguish right from wrong. There exists now a capability to rationalise almost anything, just so long as it serves a particular interest and allows one fan to crow in the face of another. That’s the game now: laugh-cry emojis and one-upmanship.
That should weigh heavier on the sport’s conscience than it does, because this slow decay has been in evidence for years. Supporters who demand that celebrities or politicians are fired into the sun for tax fraud are startlingly liberal when the same allegations are levelled at their star midfielder. When a centre-forward is accused of racially abusing an opponent, the colour of his shirt rather than the nature of the offence determines whether some are able to forgive him. When a centre-half beats his wife, only those who don’t spend their Saturdays signing his name can see any wrongdoing. With the right collection of medals and a rich enough highlight reel, any club or player is free to walk between the raindrops, free from consequences and immune to almost anything. There’s really nothing which can’t be whitewashed or explained away, because a redemptive arc is available to anybody who plays well enough and pays the right public relations firm.
So why should this be different. In time, a host of clubs will presumably be accused of more or less the same set of offences, and when each of them is strung up in front of the public, they and their apologists will reel off identical non-committing, non-apologies before, inevitably, a cavalry of high-priced lawyers arrives to escort them down from the scaffold and pick holes in the legislation that their clients wilfully and deliberately ignored. And they’ll win. And they’ll carry on as they did before. And, if UEFA steps too aggressively in their direction, they’ll take the balls, the pitches, and the aspiration from the game, and gate themselves in with the lot, in a private, decadent utopia into which nobody else is allowed.
Actually, maybe people are right not to care, because what does that even achieve?