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The Premier League's asterisk season

This season's Premier League has been defined as much by turbulence off the field -- points deductions, internecine bickering, legal disputes, fraud accusations and the looming threat of government intervention -- as it has been by Manchester City's (eventual) smooth sailing through it.
Last Updated : 17 May 2024, 07:49 IST
Last Updated : 17 May 2024, 07:49 IST

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With five minutes left in his team's penultimate game of the Premier League season, Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola found the tension just a little too much. As a rival striker bore down on his team's goal, Guardiola -- crouching on his haunches on the sideline -- lost his balance and toppled over onto his back.

Lying on the grass and expecting the worst, he missed what may yet prove to be the pivotal moment in the Premier League's most enthralling title race in a decade.

But the striker did not score. His effort was parried by goalkeeper Stefan Ortega, sending Manchester City above its title rival Arsenal in the standings and positioning it, if it can win again Sunday, to become the first English team to win four consecutive championships.

"Ortega saved us," Guardiola said afterward. "Otherwise, Arsenal is champion."

That the destiny of the championship should have been determined only so late in the season seems fitting for what has, on the surface, been a vintage Premier League campaign.

All of that drama, though, comes with a figurative asterisk. This season's Premier League has been defined as much by turbulence off the field -- points deductions, internecine bickering, legal disputes, fraud accusations and the looming threat of government intervention -- as it has been by City's (eventual) smooth sailing through it.

For the first time, the Premier League this season was forced to strip points in the standings from two of its member clubs for breaches of financial regulations. One of them, Everton, was punished twice, prompting outrage from its fans. Appeals then kicked off a long, opaque legal process that left not just those teams but also their rivals mired in months of uncertainty.

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

There have been fierce disagreements about financial rules, about how much of the Premier League's wealth should be shared with the rest of English football and about the legitimacy of some teams' commercial revenue.

That has led to growing intramural lawfare: Manchester City has threatened legal action over sponsorships by companies affiliated with the club's Emirati owners, and Burnley has sought legal advice as it contemplates a claim for tens of millions of dollars in compensation for its costly relegation during the period when Everton was in breach of financial regulations.

More troubling still, to 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 over a series of title-winning seasons.

Manchester City has always declined to discuss the Premier League's charges, which it has labeled an "organized" attempt to smear its reputation, and has repeatedly said it has a "comprehensive body of irrefutable proof" of its 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 an expensive endeavor: Its legal costs, for multiple cases, now run into the double-digit millions.

Casting a shadow above it all, at least as far as the Premier League is concerned, is an effort by the British government to introduce a football regulator to ensure that clubs are run sustainably by reliable, reputable owners.

When the idea was first proposed three years ago, in the aftermath of an attempt by some leading clubs to form a breakaway European Super League, the Premier League offered a cautious welcome. It engaged with lawmakers as they sought ideas on what form a regulator might take.

That stance has changed substantially. The league has lobbied consistently to try to limit the role of the regulator, advertising frequently in a suite of political newsletters. Richard Masters, the Premier League's CEO, recently suggested that any government regulation threatened to "undermine the Premier League's global success" by deterring potential investors in the game.

In an open letter to The Times of London, he suggested that regulation might wound "the goose that provides English football's golden egg."

"The big fear is that investment will dry up," said Christina Philippou, a lecturer in sports finance at the University of Portsmouth who has advised lawmakers drafting the regulator's role. "A regulator does make a certain type of investment less likely. But making it more sustainable, limiting losses, makes another -- maybe better -- type of investment more likely."

Whether the Premier League is sufficiently unified to meet all of the challenges it faces, though, is up for debate. The league is run as a collective: 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 Philippou characterized as a "clear split" between the so-called Big Six -- Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham, whose interests ordinarily aligned -- and everyone else. The picture now is far more complex. "There are lots of cliques and a lot of tension," she said.

Though the league has been able to reach unanimity on certain issues -- the need for a new set of financial regulations and improvements to video refereeing -- the atmosphere at its meetings is now more charged, according to several executives who attend the gatherings but declined to be 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, formerly absolute, is now frequently challenged. And some teams, they said, now routinely reserve one of the two seats each is assigned at the meetings for an in-house lawyer.

Most attribute that to the seismic, divisive issues the league has had to face in recent years, ranging from the coronavirus pandemic to a number of breakaway proposals and the spate of financial cases.

Others, though, believe that the shifting makeup 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 with the overall health of the game than their predecessors.

"It will only get worse," said Trevor East, a former television executive who was an architect of the original vision for the Premier League. "The integrity of the league is all-important, but they are going to be challenged at every opportunity in the future."

The competitive spirit of the league has become a problem, too. Part of the controversy over the points deductions for Everton and another club, Nottingham Forest, was that the league did not have set penalties for financial offenses: Everton was initially stripped of 10 points, later reduced to 6, but Forest only 4.

That, though, was deliberate: In 2020, Premier League clubs voted not to enshrine specific tariffs in the league's regulations, partly in the hope that uncertainty might act as a deterrent and partly out of a belief that certain teams would come to regard them merely as the cost of doing business.

That sort of short-term analysis, Philippou said, is typical of the thinking that has brought the Premier League to a point where the government can reasonably propose regulation. "It has always had a habit of concentrating on certain, immediate things," she said of the league, "rather than looking at the actual problems and seeing what it needs to do to have competitive balance."

That the league has shown itself willing to use its powers to punish its members can, to some executives, be seen as proof that the regulations have teeth: an administrative version of Voltaire's observation that in England "it is good to kill an admiral from time to time, to encourage the others."

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

Few in soccer worry that the Premier League's troubles will dim its appeal. Even the specter that Manchester City's achievements may be tarnished might, in time, become just another compelling storyline in a global soap opera.

The turbulence, though, seems likely to continue. Last month, Leicester City was promoted back to the Premier League after a season away. The club has already been charged with breaching financial rules during its last stay. It, too, is in line for a points deduction.

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Published 17 May 2024, 07:49 IST

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