During the second half of his 22 years in charge at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger repeatedly called on football’s governing bodies to clamp down on the “financial doping” that he felt was ruining the modern game.
Football had been slow to react to the oligarch money that flooded into west London from Russia in the mid-noughties so when plans were put in place to launch Financial Fair Play regulations, he was optimistic they might help level the playing field again.
“When FFP comes into English football, everyone will appreciate the benefits,” he said in 2012.
“The history of the game in this country shows that smaller teams like Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Derby won the title not so long ago. This could happen again if we did not have one or two teams working with a different budget.”
His comments were laced with urgency because news had already filtered through that Manchester City were using super-sized sponsorship deals (linked to their Emirate owners) to boost their coffers.
“The original plans suggested sponsorship deals have to be at the level of the market price, but if clubs use unrealistic deals as a way to get around Financial Fair Play, it will make a mockery of the rules,” warned the Frenchman.
“We need to make sure the rules are followed because they can be very good for the future of the game.”
Fast forward to 2020 and Wenger, two years after his departure from Arsenal and with little skin in the game, was clear that FFP had not balanced the game in the way he had hoped.
Nouveau riche clubs who had seemingly bent the rules had not been punished. And those same clubs, alongside the established elite – all happily entrenched at the top of the game – were calling for the rules to be stringently enforced to prevent others from following suit. It was the worst of both worlds in his eyes.
“I’m convinced that at the moment there is an evolution to be made in the way FFP rules are built at the moment. But, they are what they are, and you have to respect them. People that don’t respect them and are caught trying to get around the rules in more or less legal ways have to be punished. If it’s proven that this has been done on purpose you cannot let that go unpunished,” he said.
In an interview with L’Equipe, he added: “I am in favour of measures that reinforce checks around club management, over measures that restrict and limit. We should value quality management and encourage it. And I am in favour of opening things up to more investment, which FFP does not allow for.
“The clubs that dominate Europe today are those that were built and made investments during an era where FFP did not exist. FFP prevents emerging clubs who want to invest from doing so. That is not normal.
“These rules have fixed a hierarchy, the big historical clubs are bigger and bigger and, obviously, they are all fighting for FFP rules to be scrupulously applied to the others so that competitors can’t come through.
“Controlling club management rigorously yes, verifying where funds are coming from, yes, but we need to encourage people to invest in football. FFP must become more flexible and facilitate investment.”
His comments came not long after Manchester City had been banned from European competition for two seasons for seriously misleading European football’s governing body and breaking FFP rules.
Within a couple of months, that ruling was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport on what many considered a technicality.
In light of Monday’s news that City have now been charged by the Premier League on similar grounds, Wenger’s comments have once again come to the fore.
It remains to be seen whether City will be found guilty or not and what punishment will be dished out and when. Having had a foot in both camps, current Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta didn’t fancy weighing in with an opinion.
“I’m not going to make any comment on that, I’m sorry,” was his only comment when pressed on the matter ahead of Arsenal’s trip to Brentford.
At the Etihad, Pep Guardiola, who has overseen a trophy-laden seven-year spell at City, went on the rampage, tearing into nine clubs, including Arsenal, who he accused of trying to take advantage of the continued inquest into his club’s behaviour.
“Nine teams: Burnley, Wolves, Leicester, Newcastle, Spurs, Arsenal, [Manchester] United, Liverpool, Chelsea [wanted] us out of the Champions League, because they want that position. To take that position that we won on the pitch,” he said.
He added: “What they have done to us be careful in the future because many clubs can be accused like we have been accused.
“That they are pushing to get rid of us out of the competition, that is obvious because they believe that we didn’t behave properly. We accept that but let us defend when we believe we did it properly.”
Guardiola’s decision to namecheck Arsenal certainly adds an extra frisson to the title race, especially with the Premier League’s two top sides set to meet on Wednesday. It’s a grudge match in more ways than one.