Sunday, 24 December 2017
Who pays for Manchester City’s beautiful game?
Nick Cohen in The Guardian
Even though I come from the red side of Manchester, I want Manchester City to win every game they play now. Hoping City fail is like hoping a great singer’s voice cracks or prima ballerina’s tendons tear. Journalists have written and broadcast millions of words about the intensity of Manchester City’s game and the beauty of its movement. You watch and gasp as each perfect pass finds its man and each impossible move becomes possible after all.
Everything that can be said should have been said. But here are words you never hear on the BBC or Sky and hear only rarely from the best sports writers. Manchester City’s success is built on the labour extracted by the rulers of a modern feudal state. Sheikh Mansour, its owner, is the half-brother of Sheikh Khalifa, the absolute monarch of the United Arab Emirates: an accident of birth that has given him a mountain of cash and Manchester City the Premier League’s best players.
An absolute monarchy is merely a dictatorship decked in fine robes. The usual restrictions of free speech, a free press, the rule of law, an independent judiciary and democratic elections still apply in the Emirates federation of seven sultanates. Critics are as likely to disappear or be held without due process as they are in less glamorous destinations. The riches that supply Pep Guardiola’s £15m salary and ensure the £264m wage bill for the players is met on time do not just come from oil. The Emirate monarchies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia rely on a system of economic exploitation you struggle to find a precedent for.
In the UAE as a whole, only 13% of the population are full nationals. In the glittering tourist resort of Dubai, citizenship rises slightly to 15% and in the Abu Dhabi emirate to 20%, but everywhere a subclass of immigrants does the bulk of the work. The obvious comparison is with apartheid: Arab nationals sit at the top, white expats have some privileges, as the coloureds and Asians had in the last days of the South African regime, while the dirty work – from construction to cleaning – is done by despised immigrants from south Asia.
But comparisons with apartheid or the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or America’s old deep south miscarry because the Arab princelings import their working class rather than rule over subdued inhabitants. It’s like Spartans bringing in Helots. Or if images of stern Spartan militarists feel incongruous when imposed on the flabby bodies of Gulf aristocrats, Eloi importing Morlocks. Timid labour reforms are meant to have improved the lot of the serfs. In law, employers can no longer keep them in line with the threat of deportation to India or the Philippines if they do not please a capricious boss. In practice, absolute monarchies repress the lawyers and campaigners who might take up their cases. Now, as always, activists are silenced and workers fear the cost of speaking out.
You should be able to praise Manchester City’s football and condemn it owners. Or, if that is asking too much, you should at least be able to talk about its owners or mention the source of their wealth. If only in passing. If only the once. Instead, there is silence. With Mansour building a global consortium of clubs, Qataris owning Paris Saint-Germain and Emirate money poised to buy Newcastle United, rich dictatorial states are engaging in competitive conspicuous consumption. They are creating the world’s best clubs and may one day take them off into an oligarchs’ league. You are not “bringing politics into football” when you worry about Sheikh Mansour. You are recognising that the future of football is political.
The silence about the fate of the national game covers much of national life. Everywhere you look, you are struck by the arguments that are not being made.
Mainstream Conservatives refuse to join Tory rebels in speaking out against the dangers of Brexit. They like to boast that they are stable and commonsensical types, with no time for dangerous experiments. When confronted with the reckless nationalism of the Tory right, however, they prefer the safe option of keeping quiet until public opinion shifts. Many Labour MPs and leftwing journalists deplore Corbyn and the far left. I speak from experience when I say they talk with great eloquence in private, but will not utter a squeak of dissent in public until Corbyn’s popularity among party members falls. They, too, will speak out when, and only when, they can be certain that it is too late for speaking out to make a difference.
We think of ourselves as more liberated than our ancestors, but the same repressive mechanisms silence us. In the 18th and 19th centuries, few wanted to say that gorgeous stately homes and fine public buildings had been built because the British looted Indians and enslaved Africans. Today, it feels equally “inappropriate” – to use a modern word that stinks of Victorian prudery – to say that a beautiful football club has been built on the proceeds of exploitation.
Football supporters reserve their hatred for owners such as the Glazers, who bought Manchester United with borrowed money and siphoned off the club’s profits to pay down the debt. If billions are available to turn Manchester City or Paris Saint-Germain into world-class clubs, the fans do not care where the money came from. Nor do neutrals who love football for its own sake. For them, it is as miserablist to talk about Manchester City’s owners on Match of the Day as to talk about the factory farming of turkeys at the Christmas lunch table.
Honest sports writers fear the accusation that they are joyless puritan nags whose sole pleasure is ruining the pleasure of others. In Britain’s vacuous politics, Conservatives fear accusations of ignoring the will of the people on Brexit. Labour MPs fear their activists rather than their voters. In both the Tory and Labour cases, the worst that can happen to MPs is deselection. Mail or Express journalists who came out against Brexit would, I imagine, risk their jobs or being moved on to a different story. But no leftwing paper would sack a columnist who criticised Corbyn. The worst they would endure is frosty words from line managers and twaddle on Twitter.
We do not live in Abu Dhabi. The police do not pick up dissidents. Jailers don’t torture them. Yet peer pressure and trivial fears are enough to suppress necessary arguments. If you do not yet have a New Year resolution, it’s worth resolving to treat both with the contempt they deserve.