The Asterisk season of the Premier League

With five minutes left in his team’s penultimate match of the Premier League season, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola found the tension too much. As a rival striker approached his team’s goal, Guardiola, crouching on the bench, lost his balance and fell on his back.

Lying on the grass and expecting the worst, he missed what could yet prove to be the crucial moment in the most exciting Premier League title race in a decade.

But the forward did not score. Their effort was stopped by goalkeeper Stefan Ortega, sending Manchester City above title rivals Arsenal in the standings and positioning them, if they can win again on Sunday, to become the first English team to win four consecutive championships.

“Ortega saved us,” Guardiola said afterwards. “Otherwise, Arsenal are champions.”

That the fate of the Championship was determined only so late in the season seems appropriate for what, on the surface, has been a classic Premier League campaign.

All that drama, however, comes with a figurative asterisk. This season’s Premier League has been defined as much by off-field turbulence (point deductions, internal disputes, legal disputes, allegations of fraud and the looming threat of government intervention) as by City’s (eventual) smooth sailing through her.

For the first time, the Premier League this season was forced to dock points in the standings from two of its member clubs for breaches of financial rules. One of them, Everton, was punished twice, causing outrage among their fans. The appeals then began a long and opaque legal process that left not only those teams but also their rivals mired in months of uncertainty.

Behind the scenes, the uneasy peace between the 20 clubs that act as owners and operators of the league has essentially been shattered, shaking the foundations that allowed the competition to become so popular that it is now arguably the most powerful cultural export in Britain.

There have been strong disagreements over financial rules, over how much of the Premier League’s wealth should be shared with the rest of English football, over the legitimacy of some teams’ commercial income.

This has led to growing internal conflict: Manchester City have threatened legal action over sponsorships from companies affiliated with the club’s Emirati owners, and Burnley have sought legal advice as they contemplate a claim for tens of millions of dollars in compensation for their costly relegation during the period in which Everton breached financial rules.

Even more worrying, for fans and clubs alike, is that it has been 15 months since Manchester City was accused of 115 violations of the league’s financial rules during a series of title-winning seasons.

Manchester City have always refused to discuss the Premier League’s charges, which they have called an “organised” attempt to tarnish their reputation, and have repeatedly said they have a “full set of irrefutable evidence” of their innocence.

The Premier League declined to respond this week, pointing to its long-standing policy of not commenting on ongoing cases involving its members, but those fights have become a costly undertaking: its legal costs, for multiple cases, now They amount to double-digit millions.

Casting a shadow over all this, at least as far as the Premier League is concerned, is the British government’s effort to introduce a football regulator to ensure clubs are sustainably run by trusted and reputable owners.

When the idea was first proposed three years ago, following an attempt by some major clubs to form a breakaway European Super League, the Premier League offered a cautious welcome. He collaborated with lawmakers as they sought ideas on what form a regulator could take.

That position has changed substantially. The league has consistently pushed to try to limit the regulator’s role, frequently advertising in a series of political newsletters. Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League, recently suggested that any government regulation threatened to “undermine the global success of the Premier League” by deterring potential investors in the game.

In an open letter to the Times of London, he suggested the regulation could hurt “the goose that lays the golden eggs of English football.”

“The big fear is that investment will dry up,” said Christina Philippou, a professor of sports finance at the University of Portsmouth, who has advised lawmakers who drafted the regulator’s role. “A regulator makes a certain type of investment less likely. But making it more sustainable and limiting losses makes another type of investment more likely, perhaps better.”

However, it is a matter of debate whether the Premier League is unified enough to meet all the challenges it faces. The league is run collectively: each club has a single vote, regardless of its size or longevity, and for any motion to pass, it must attract the support of 14 of the 20 clubs.

For years, that led to what Dr. Philippou characterized as a “clear divide” between the so-called Big Six (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and United, and Tottenham, whose interests were typically aligned) and everyone else. The panorama now is much more complex. “There are a lot of cliques and a lot of tension,” he said.

Although the league has been able to reach unanimity on certain issues (the need for a new set of financial regulations and improvements to video officiating), the atmosphere at its meetings is now more charged, according to several executives who attended the meetings but declined to be briefed. named while discussing private conversations.

What were once relatively cordial rivalries have calcified into something more vitriolic, those executives said. The authority of the league itself, once absolute, is now frequently questioned. And some teams, they said, now routinely reserve one of the two seats they are assigned in meetings for an in-house lawyer.

Most attribute it to the seismic and divisive problems the league has had to face in recent years, ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to a series of separatist proposals and the avalanche of financial cases.

Others, however, believe the changing composition of the league’s ownership group has played a role: sovereign wealth funds and private equity groups are more willing to tolerate losses and less concerned about the overall health of the game than their predecessors.

“It’s only going to get worse,” said Trevor East, a former television executive who was one of the architects of the original vision of the Premier League. “The integrity of the league is of utmost importance, but they will be challenged at every opportunity going forward.”

The league’s competitive spirit has also become an issue. Part of the controversy over point deductions for Everton and another club, Nottingham Forest, was that the league had not set penalties for financial breaches: Everton were initially docked 10 points, then reduced to six, but Forest only four.

However, that was deliberate: in 2020, Premier League clubs voted not to enshrine specific tariffs in league regulations, partly in the hope that the uncertainty could act as a deterrent and partly out of the belief that certain teams would come to simply consider them. as the cost of doing business.

That kind of short-term analysis, Dr Philippou said, is typical of the thinking that has brought the Premier League to a point where the government can reasonably propose regulation. “It’s always had a habit of focusing on certain immediate things,” he said of the league, “rather than looking at the real problems and seeing what needs to be done to have competitive balance.”

The fact that the league has shown itself willing to use its powers to punish its members may be seen, to some executives, as proof that regulations have force: an administrative version of Voltaire’s observation that in England “ “It’s good to kill an admiral once in a while.” sometimes, to encourage others.”

Speaking before lawmakers this week, Masters acknowledged that this “has been a difficult period for the league” and that seeing his teams punished has been difficult for fans. “But if we have financial rules, we have to enforce them,” he said.

Few in football fear the Premier League’s problems will affect its appeal. Even the specter that Manchester City’s achievements could be tarnished could, in time, become another compelling plotline for a global soap opera.

However, it seems likely that the turbulence will continue. Last month, Leicester City were promoted back to the Premier League after a season away. The club has already been accused of breaching financial rules during his last stay. You are also in line for a points deduction.

Andres Das contributed reporting from London.

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