On Saturday, Watford were set alight and consumed by flames in the latest sacrificial ritual attesting to the almighty powers of Manchester City. The smoke from that immolation announced City as champions of the F.A. Cup, winners of the first domestic treble in English soccer history, and legitimate contenders for the title of greatest team England has ever seen.
Man City dispatched Watford with the same spell-binding dominance the team has demonstrated throughout their two seasons of transcendence. The final score was 6–0, which tied the record Bury set in their 6–0 defeat of Derby County in 1903 as the largest margin of victory in F.A. Cup history. Watford were one of the better midtable teams in the Premier League this year, have a few players who could and probably soon will find themselves starters for Champions League clubs, and yet they didn’t stand a chance. City played one of their best games of the season, even without starting some of their heaviest hitters like Kevin De Bruyne, Sergio Agüero, and Fernandinho.
There can be no argument that this Man City team reigns over England with a (short-term) supremacy the country has rarely, if ever, seen before. Becoming the first team to win the league, the F.A. Cup, and the League Cup in the same year is itself testament to this. The comprehensive way they’ve gone about doing so, coming off the two best English top-division seasons ever and now winning the most lopsided F.A. Cup final in history, makes City’s greatness even more stark. Add to it all that the Premier League is currently in its strongest ever period, and that the league has demonstrated its superiority over all others by providing all four of the finalists for the Champions and Europa League titles. If there is a God of world soccer today, it must be English; and if there is a God of English soccer, it must be Manchester City. Sacrifices like Saturday’s cup final somehow feel both garish and necessary as displays of City’s unchallenged might.
But no consecration of a new power, especially in a country as proudly exceptionalist as England, could occur without bristling those who preferred the old order. Sure enough, City’s season has driven many professional and recreational English soccer fans positively mad, as one side searches for ways to delegitimize the club’s omnipotence while the other treats any and all criticism of their club as a declaration of war.
Suddenly, fans who have in recent times trumpeted the Premier League’s unparalleled financial might as clear proof of its righteous preeminence are now scandalized by the notion that money might be correlated with on-field success. (As if this weren’t a tautology. The best teams have the best players and the best coaches, all of whom justly command the highest transfer fees to acquire and salaries to keep in town. It’s what the dozen or so mega-rich clubs around the world actually do with the money they all have that makes the difference.) Suddenly, a country that for most of its recent history has been completely dominated by just two clubs, Liverpool and Manchester United, winners of 28 of the 50 league titles between 1963 and 2013, is terrified by a club that has just won its sixth ever league championship by a single point in the table. Suddenly, a league where three-fourths of the clubs are owned by billionaires cannot countenance the idea of one club having lots of money and spending it to build a good team.
Soccer is not “broken,” as the Guardian wrote on Sunday in an article that attempted to make the unconvincing case that watching an extraordinary team perform extraordinarily is actually dumb and boring. (City manager Pep Guardiola is no stranger to this line of thinking, not after his all-time great, aesthetically mesmerizing Barcelona teams were regularly accused, often by English pundits, of being boring.) The article continues, rattling off reasons for why City are everything wrong with soccer that are at varying times either not at all new, not concerning, not unique to Man City, or actually reflect the health English soccer and the unprecedented number of very good teams the league can now sustain:
Football is broken. It is not just that Watford have lost their last 11 games against City, that they have not beaten them in 30 years, it is that without major structural changes in the finances of the game, or the arrival at Vicarage Road of a sheik, oligarch or nation state looking to enhance its global reputation, there is no prospect of them being able to challenge over any sort of sustained period.
There have always been big clubs before, rich clubs, but never clubs whose status at the top of the game is so systemically secure. In 67 Premier League games this season one side had 70% possession or more; 15 years ago there was one. That is one in six games that are not in any meaningful sense a contest.
The Irish Times made a similar case in an even stupider way by crawling inside Guardiola’s head and reporting back that, when City scored their record-matching sixth goal against Watford, the Spaniard was emotionally sick with the realization that he had created a killing machine too lethal for the sport’s good. So much effort spent pretending to read sinister implications into what has always been the mandate of sport at the highest level: spend money to attract the best talent, organize it in the most effective way possible, and try your damnedest to destroy all comers.
It’s aggravating to see people twisting themselves into pretzels in order to explain why a soccer team achieving greatness—of a sort that differs from what came before only in degree, not in kind—is a terrible thing. What’s even worse, though, is to see those same people fail to grapple with the very real conditions that actually make Man City’s dominance something to deplore.
Man City’s squad is full of exceptional players and is coached by one of the best managers of all time, and their tireless work to become what they are today deserves praise, admiration, and appreciation. At the same time, the club itself is essentially owned by Abu Dhabi of the U.A.E., a sovereign nation of unlimited wealth and with a deplorable human rights record. Man City is funded with the very same money and by the very same people who profit from those moral atrocities, and as so is an avatar of a deeply gross regime.
Many of City’s detractors attempt to use the U.A.E.’s ethical offenses as cover behind which they sneak in their distaste of City-the-soccer-team, with its counter-cultural style of play and its remorseless upturning of the traditional hierarchy that have come to dominate precisely where believers of the old faith claimed that style could never infiltrate. But the two issues are separate. The problem isn’t that City have money and that they have spent it widely and well; the problem is where City’s money comes from. Mixing the two trivializes the former and prevents an honest reckoning with what City’s ascendence really stands for.
Sheikh Mansour of the Abu Dhabi royal family didn’t buy the club and sink over a billion dollars into to make it great simply for the love of the sport or the thrill of competition; he did so in order to buy his family the shiniest possible vehicle of soft power that would distract the world from the nefarious acts that are the true core of the U.A.E. All the great and impressive things the good people at the club have done exists for the sole purpose of this shady ulterior motive. The height of achievement in this sport is being coopted to make a country’s shitty rulers look good.
The problem, then, isn’t that City have sacrificially slaughtered Watford and the rest of English soccer these past two years, or even the way they’ve gone about doing it. The problem is the cause those sacrifices are meant to serve, the use of legitimately awe-inspiring feats of athletic brilliance as a cloak for a nation’s malevolence, the wondrous fruit of a poisonous tree. Everything that Manchester City have done on the field—play gorgeous, near-perfect soccer that resets the standard of Premier League excellence—is worthy of nothing but praise and admiration. It’s why and for whom the team is ultimately doing all of that in service of that’s the problem.