Commentary

A precarious Premier League?

Why the world's biggest league has the biggest problems

Updated: July 20, 2012, 3:42 PM ET
By Roger Bennett | ESPN

A ball has yet to be kicked in the 2012-13 English Premier League, but the looming season already has a lingering stench of the predetermined.

Summertime is traditionally cluttered with blockbuster transfer deals, but give or take an Eden Hazard or Shinji Kagawa, this offseason's moves have been overshadowed by storylines of strained cash flows at major clubs.

Arsenal and Manchester United are struggling to keep up with last season's champions, Manchester City, which increasingly resembles the chip leader in a high-stakes poker game, bullying the pot on every hand by shoving its colossal stack of petrodollars to go all-in while watching other teams fold around the table.

None of this surprises The Guardian soccer writer David Conn. "The degree to which football's financial issues dominate is a symbol that even as more and more people around the world become glued to the Premier League, it is rife with problems," he said. "Next season, City will be very strong, and so will Chelsea, another club that has an oil billionaire pouring money into it. Premier League success has come to depend on how rich a team's owner is and how much money they are prepared to put in."

[+] EnlargeFake British Pound
Shaun Botterill/Getty ImagesWhen Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi United Group purchased Manchester City in 2008, fans satirized the sale with fake bank notes. Little did they know how much ADUG would spend: $1.56 billion in three years.

Conn, English soccer's leading investigative journalist, has captured this transition in his crisply written new book "Richer Than God: Manchester City, Modern Football and Growing Up." In it, he traces City's journey from its 1968 championship victory through decades of suffering spent "mostly in gloom and several shades of cock-up" to the Mancunians' 2008 takeover and makeover by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi who pumped $1.56 billion into the club, culminating in a startling last-minute title victory on the final day of the 2011-12 season.

Expertly intertwining economics, history, soccer and memoir, Conn explores the evolution of English soccer in the Premier League era, contrasting Manchester's decline from industrial power to the poorest, wettest city in Britain with the explosive rise of Abu Dhabi, a subsistence desert economy that became the fast-growing home to 10 percent of the world's crude oil reserves.

Conn's personal experience of fandom simmers beneath the surface of every page, his life shaped by what he refers to as a "fundamental awakening" -- the transformation from passionate adolescent who believed the soccer team he adored was a "true club" belonging to its supporters to an adult realizing that it was a business with a board and shares that could be bought, sold and owned by a single human for personal gain.

"Most fans have not had this awakening yet," Conn said, referring to soccer as if it lives in the same innocent domain as tooth fairies and Santa Claus. "Football plays such a massive role in their lives that they cling to the myth their club belongs to them even though it's registered in the Cayman Islands and is about to be floated on New York's stock exchange."

Conn is eluding to Manchester United's impending IPO, an attempt by the club's Palm Beach, Fla.-based owners, the Glazer family, to raise $300 million dollars by selling shares in what they call an "emerging growth company." The move is interpreted by many as an attempt to restore the club to a healthier financial footing so it can remain competitive at the elite level.

[+] EnlargeSir Alex Ferguson and Roberto Mancini
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesThe tension between United and City -- as evidenced by Roberto Mancini's dismissive "yapping hand" -- isn't just about on-field drama but also the differing financial capabilities of the clubs.

"The Glazers have owned the team that makes the most money in the world for seven years now and are yet to make a statement about their motivations," said Conn incredulously. "It is clear from the public offering prospectus that the money they hope to raise is just going to pay off debt accrued when they bought the club in 2005. Their fans have already had to suffer as they drained over $782 million out of the club to service that debt, while three miles across town, Sheikh Mansour has poured a fortune into Manchester City."

Conn doesn't believe United is at a breaking point, but prohibitive interest payments on the club's outstanding $688 million are preventing the Red Devils from being aggressive in the transfer markets.

"The club is a money-machine revenue-wise," he said, "but it is no longer attracting the best players in Europe to compete seriously for the Champions League."

Furthermore, Sir Alex Ferguson's managerial cloak of invincibility has been dented by more than just the mocking "yapping hand" unleashed by Roberto Mancini on the sideline during City's crucial late season 1-0 triumph. Ferguson's complaining about overpricing in the transfer market is an excuse for the side's struggles, financially and on the pitch, Conn said.

In Conn's mind, Premier League soccer has become an arms race to pay players' salaries. He harbors no illusions about those factors underpinning City's recent league triumph.

"The club finished 10th the year Mansour took over," Conn said. "Now it is the champion. Why? Because of the $1.56 billion poured into the club, which stands in stark contrast to when we last won the league in 1968 by simply relying on great coaching and a terrific squad of young players that included many local lads."

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has been among the leading critics of Manchester City's methodology, saying the Sky Blues have "destroyed his work" by cherry picking six of his former players since 2009 and threatening to turn the Gunners into a feeder club. Conn has little sympathy.

"Arsenal used to have a halo over it," he said. "Everyone marveled about its discipline, how it did not spend resources it did not have, how its board members did not take money out of the club and how the team still played beautiful football.

"When Wenger first complained that Manchester City was not working off its own revenue, it felt like the argument had moral worth. But Arsenal lost that in 2011 when Stan Kroenke bought control of the club and the English board members whose shares he purchased pocketed $469 million collectively and walked off into the sunset without putting anything back into the club."

For Arsenal, Kroenke's takeover was a critical juncture where the self-sustaining model was seen for what it was: "An accident of geography through which Arsenal could force its fans to pay more for tickets than any northern team and was able to sell its old stadium for conversion into luxury flats in an expensive part of London. Arsenal should have been the last club to plead poverty."

The North London team's ability to hold onto Robin van Persie has become a bellwether of its financial future, triggering a public brawl between board members about the Gunners' lack of ambition.

"I suspect van Persie had a meeting with Arsenal, was told about the 'self-sustaining strategy' and he realized the club are no longer able to play with the best," said Conn. "He sees former teammates [Samir] Nasri and [Gael] Clichy on the winning podium with City and rationally wants to leave."

UEFA is attempting to uncouple the connection between money and glory by imposing Financial Fair Play Regulations. The new rules threaten to bar clubs from European competition if they exceed $56.6 million in losses over a two-year period to ensure teams live within their means, but Conn is skeptical.

"It remains to be seen if UEFA will enforce their own rules," he said. "If Barcelona or Chelsea signal huge losses, will UEFA really take a stand and prevent them for participating in their own elite tournaments?"

[+] EnlargeStanley 'Stan' Kroenke
Scott Olson/Getty ImagesAccording to Conn, Arsenal lost its moral authority when American businessman Stan Kroenke took over the club and exposed the Gunners' "self-sustaining model" as little more than branding.

For Conn, the solution lies in the American sporting model.

"The United States is the home of capitalism, but even there they have realized that revenue has to be shared if even competition is to thrive. Football needs to look at that model to ensure it stays the 'people's game' and not just a competition to see who has the richest owner.

"In England, we love the game more than ever, but it is such a hyped reality that we have not stopped to think what our game stands for, which is precisely why the commercial side has been allowed to dominate."

This delusion does not have to be, he said.

"In countries like Germany, they have thought through an ideology about the social function football plays in people's lives," Conn said. "There, most clubs have to maintain a majority ownership by their supporters or members. English football doesn't have that kind of coherent philosophy and so as fans growing up, we inherit a love for the clubs, but not a clear idea of how the game and clubs should be structured and governed."

Despite his rational analysis, Conn couldn't prevent himself from clenching a fist and roaring in appreciation when Kun Aguero rifled home City's league-clinching goal.

"My emotional reaction did not ignore everything I have come to learn, but the club's title run took me back to the sense of wonder I had as a boy, a connection to the first match I went to with my father 37 years ago, to my mates with whom I used to go to games who still attend but now in the company of their own kids and to the city of Manchester, which, despite all of its grimness, I adore," he said.

Toward the end of his book, Conn tells the story from the final game of the season in which he randomly encounters a 44-year-old acquaintance who had his father in tow. The older man, who had been suffering from terminal cancer, had known all season that City would be Champions. "You were born when we last won it," he told his son, "and this year we are going to win it again and I'm going to die."

To Conn, this is what soccer is really about.

"It's more religious than religion," he said, "and it's such a precious thing that it should not be exploited until the foundations creak."

Roger Bennett is a columnist for ESPN and, with Michael Davies, is one of Grantland's "Men In Blazers." Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.