For UEFA, it is only a slight exaggeration to say the battle is existential. Defeat would mean effectively admitting that Europe’s biggest, richest teams are now too big to tame, and that the body theoretically in charge of corralling them is, in reality, nothing more than the organizer of the occasional glitzy draw event in Monte Carlo.
For Manchester City, it is, primarily, a chance to prove that it is the clubs who make the rules now, that it is not UEFA’s job to dictate who can invest money in the sport, to demonstrate that financial fair play is nothing more than a device to lock in soccer’s status quo, to keep out the young and the daring and the ambitious.
The club can take that stance, of course, because soccer is — like all sports — inherently tribal. Few, if any, of its fans blame their team for any of this. On social media, as on match days at the Etihad Stadium, it is hard to find any sense of disappointment that City may have bent the rules.
Instead, wagons have been circled, lines drawn. City’s fans have long booed the pompous anthem that blares out at the start of Champions League games — something that predates the current investigation — but, when it next plays at the Etihad before the visit of Real Madrid next month, expect a torrent of hostility. City’s fans are arrayed behind their club: UEFA is against them; it is a witch-hunt; it is time to drain the swamp.
But the reason the club has no choice but to fight, and to fight for as long as possible, is different. City may want the charges to be overturned because it believes in its own “irrefutable” innocence, but the anger with which it has reacted at every stage speaks to another motivation: not the need to vindicate its loyalists, but to maintain the validity of the project for those who it was designed to win over.