Manchester City are one of the biggest and most ambitious clubs in world soccer. In order to realize their silver-lined aspirations, they need lots and lots of money to invest in the team. Luckily for them, they have more money than god thanks to the backing of the Abu Dhabi royal family which owns the club—an unlimited fount of cash that for various reasons doesn’t get enough criticism for its shady, warmongering, human rights-abusing source, which in a just world would see Man City’s monetary outlays regarded with the same kind of generalized repugnance as usually accompanies the propaganda arm of Qatar and its market-warping transfer exploits. In order to invest all that money intelligently, City need spend large chunks of it on single, highly gifted players with the ability to slot seamlessly into the lineup and win games. Luckily for them, the club spares no expense in this effort, as demonstrated again today with the signing of French central defender, Aymeric Laporte.
It may sound odd at first, but Laporte’s move from Spain’s Athletic Bilbao to Manchester makes him the club’s all-time most expensive transfer. Athletic are notoriously difficult to negotiate with, in large part because of their Basque-only (with a few workarounds for outsiders like Laporte) player policy which greatly limits the number of players eligible to play for the team. When they’ve found a gem, they don’t tend to let him go easily. The 23-year-old Laporte has long been seen as the next Athletic star, and so the club has attempted to ward off any potential suitors (Barcelona tried to coax him to Catalonia for years before finally giving up when neither he nor his club would take the bait) with a sky-high release clause.
And yet money is of no object for City. So when manager Pep Guardiola identified Laporte as the man to anchor the Citizens’ defense for presumably the next decade alongside John Stones, City’s board simply wrote Athletic the £57.2 million check needed to trigger Laporte’s release clause and got their man.
“Worth” is an ultimately meaningless descriptor to attribute to any given transfer, and its value as an assessment tool matters even less to a club like City. Is Laporte “worth” £57.2 million? Well, he is by all accounts a terrifically talented player, comfortable on the ball and when defending space the way Guardiola’s center backs have to be in order to survive, and also tall and strong and quick and good in the air like most defenders worth their salt tend to be. He was a little more highly regarded a couple years back and hasn’t been the standout performer along Athletic’s back line in recent times the way many would’ve expected, but that could just as easily be down to the relatively stultifying aura surrounding the club itself of late. Making this move now shows Laporte does have ambition to test himself at the highest level, and with a genius coach like Pep, it would be quite a surprise if Laporte doesn’t turn out good.
(By the way, despite the funky spelling, Laporte’s first name is basically just pronounced “Emerick,” but with a Frenchy verve.)
Still, even outside the context of whether Laporte is “worth” what City paid for him, it should feel a bit gross to see all the money the club continues unloading around the world in an effort to amass their superteam. Between Laporte, defenders Benjamin Mendy (£49.3 million transfer fee), Kyle Walker (£45 million), and Danilo (£26.5 million), plus goalkeeper Ederson (£34.9 million), City have spent a little more than £200 million just on new defenders this season. Throw in the £47.5 million and £42 million spent on John Stones and Eliquim Mangala, respectively, over the past couple years, and that’s more than £300 million in transfer fees. Just for defenders! Each of these figures is eye-watering in their own right; when taken together, and in the short time frame in which they were all doled out, the numbers are truly staggering. It sure does help a team improve in a hurry when it’s owned by some obscenely rich and morally reprehensible characters.
None of this talk about money should really be taken as a criticism of the team itself. When Guardiola came to town and the spending really went into overdrive, the roster—at that point aging badly—was in desperate need of new, young, world-class talent at basically every position. Because the transfer market is what it is today, the process of reinvigorating City’s squad up to the exacting standards of a team that planned on winning domestic and continental trophies was always going to involve eye-popping figures. No one at the club has done anything other than their job, and judging from the team’s present success as runaway Premier League favorites and the future forecast of the roster (most of this money has been spent on young players just on the precipice of their primes, so you’d imagine the bulk of City’s spending—at least in defense—is more or less over), they’re doing damn good work. As long as the team manages to stay out of UEFA’s sight with any more Financial Fair Play violations, and the club’s ever-increasing revenues and the gigantic Premier League TV deal should be enough to keep the auditors at bay, then those involved with the team are doing exactly what they should be doing.
(Oh, and José Mourinho: put a sock in your whining about City’s spending, okay? If anyone has no right to complain about a megaclub spending whatever it takes to improve their squad it’s the manager of the single richest club in the whole wide world.)
Nevertheless, the forces behind the club that have allowed them to inject so much money into the team are worth scrutinizing. Laporte and his new teammates might all be “worth” the enormous sums City paid for them, but only a vanishingly small number of clubs could’ve stumped up the cash and the salaries that came with them. Fees have ballooned so dramatically over the past few years precisely because clubs like City and PSG and Chelsea—clubs not beholden to the regular economic pressures of the market and instead reliant on nothing else than the whims of their super rich owners to determine how much of their personal, ill-gotten funds to reroute into their preferred vanity projects—have distorted things by paying what no one else could pay. This effect has further exaggerated the already chasmic distances between the haves and the have-nots in European soccer, which threatens to erode the foundation of a game built on unpredictability, history, and community. Microstates coming in and fundamentally altering things with their bottomless coffers often stuffed with money earned in deeply immoral fashion poisons the well for everyone. Laporte might prove worth every cent to Manchester City, but it’s not clear if Manchester City’s money is worth it to the sport.