Football has been about money for as long as it has been a professional sport. Sit on the biggest pile of cash and you can sign the best players and probably win the most games. It's a simple formula and one that most understood. But from Juventus in Turin to City in Manchester, the latest cases are evidence that it's not about money as much as it is about accounting, sponsorship and turning players into assets, as if they were pieces of machinery in a factory, things that could be amortized or sent away to other factories.
Let's be very clear here: Neither club has been convicted. Juventus have at least one appeal left regarding their recent charges, while Manchester City's case hasn't even been heard yet following Monday's announcement by the Premier League. Both have every right to due process.
Juventus have been penalised 15 points for false accounting -- they are appealing and there are related investigations against them, both criminal and sporting. Manchester City are facing 115 charges from the Premier League, most of them relating to false accounting -- or, as the Premier League put it, failing to give "a true and fair view of the club's financial position" -- over a period of nine years. They are separate cases, under separate jurisdictions, with separate catalysts driving prosecutors: in Juve's case, the concerns have come from the body that regulates the stock market; in City's cases, it was sparked by the infamous "Football Leaks" revelations.
However, the common thread is the same: the financialization of football and how impressing accountants is the key to success. Playing that game effectively can be as important as playing the other game -- you know, the one on the pitch, the one we actually pay to watch? -- and in that respect, the two are intrinsically linked. That in itself is something to think about, as is the fact that the collateral damage from these cases is the same.
Many fans feel their clubs are being scapegoated or singled out by shadowy forces. In Man City's case, it's the footballing establishment "blue bloods," whether in Europe (Bayern Munich, Real Madrid et al) or in England (Liverpool, Manchester United). For Juventus, because they are the establishment, they feel like they've been targeted by populist magistrates and investigators, usually spurred on by jealous smaller rivals. The theory works the same whether you're an outsider like City bullied by insiders, or whether you're Juventus, a historical aristocrat "insider" -- lest we forget, until this past November, Juve's president was Andrea Agnelli who, until he led the failed Super League revolt in 2020, sat on the UEFA Executive Committee and was president of the European Club Association -- turned into reviled and persecuted outsider.
This is where fandom meets victimhood. Many fans defend their status as the latter with the zeal they put into the former. And because fandom, like love or faith, is irrational, it often degenerates into arguments that appear rational to fans but make little sense to most neutrals. These can include classic "What about XYZ?" questions, where XYZ is often a similar-sounding -- but in fact quite different -- situation. (Examples: the investigation into Napoli's inflation of transfer values, which incidentally is still ongoing or, in City's case, asking why Chelsea have not been punished for their vast spending spree when their financial year is still open.)
Or they might involve some amateur-lawyer, stringently legal reading of the situation, which often ignores that the underlying facts are pretty clear, regardless of what the letter of the law might say. For example: yes, there is no specific rule that prohibits inflating transfer values on player swaps, but common sense tells you it's wrong to value the Arthur-Miralem Pjanic trade with Barcelona in the way it was valued by Juve. Or yes, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) did overturn City's two-year ban for "disguising equity funds as sponsorship contributions," but it did so in part because the charges were time-barred and, in any case, City were fined a record amount for obstructing the investigation.
Beyond that, there's a gnawing question that appears so obvious to fans of other clubs: does it seems reasonable that companies related to the United Arab Emirates can make a legitimate business case for sponsoring City to the degree that they did? Whatever the law says, most neutrals' common sense says no.
Then there's the fatalistic "we had no choice because the system is rigged against us" defence by fans of either club. Both Juventus and City have shied away from this, but many supporters have not. The Juve-sphere is filled with folks talking about how "football is broken" (and how the Super League would have saved it), as well as how this was the only way to compete with the financial dominance of the English clubs. From fans on the City end, you get talk of how Financial Sustainability rules are anti-competitive and should be illegal, how they're just a mechanism for established clubs to maintain their dominance over the sport since "organic growth" without spending massive investment is impossible.
All of the above may or may not be true to some degree, but it doesn't change the basic fact: none of it is a licence to break the rules, whether in terms of the letter, or the spirit, of the law.
Alejandro Moreno and Shaka Hislop react to Juventus being given a 15-point deduction in the Serie A table.
It also boils down to one of the ills afflicting the game: a lack of faith in institutions and regulators. A lack of faith that rules are being enforced, for some. A lack of faith that they are being enforced fairly, on those occasions where they are enforced, by others.
To make matters worse is the fact that this "financialization and commodification of the game" -- which might be necessary in the name of stability and sustainability -- is foreign to supporters and to what made them fans in the first place. Sure, it's a business, like airlines, auto manufacturing or crypto trading, and it gets judged in courts and according to business and accounting rules. The difference is that people don't buy FTX replica kits and there aren't millions of Sam Bankman-Fried fans out there discussing some vast conspiracy against him.
This context makes whatever verdict and sentence awaits these two clubs that much more important. Sure, the substance matters most, of course, but the only way it will make sense to most fans is if they can fully understand what crime did or did not take place, why that crime is or is not a crime and how the relevant courts arrived at their judgment.
That's a huge ask, and with the regulations the way they are -- dense, complex, sometimes ambiguous -- it might be an impossible ask. But it's the only way to restore faith in the institutions. Otherwise, regardless of the verdict, we'll just get more of the status quo: a minority feeling unjustly persecuted while the court of public opinion has already convicted them, no matter what the real court actually says.