Three days before the Manchester City home game against Lyon the UEFA heavy lifting crew moved into the Etihad and started to cover up every non-UEFA sponsor bit of advertising.
Large UEFA billboards and flags started to appear around the stadium. This UEFA rebranding team seem to move at the speed of light, operating in the shadows like SPECTRE – setting traps and hatching clever plans of world domination.
As I sit in City Square, watching the UEFA team assemble their tents and flags, I am starting to get excited about the prospect of another season in the Champions League. For although, I know all the reasons why we should be booing UEFA, and I agree its important we don’t forget how we have been wronged by UEFA, I still find the prospect of watching elite European competition thrilling. So, my booing will probably be half hearted.
UEFA first crossed Manchester City back in 2012 when two things happened which left a bad taste in our mouths. Mario Balotelli, our erstwhile striker, was racially abused by Porto fans. Porto were fined 20,000 Euros but a few weeks later City were fined 30,000 Euros by UEFA for being 30 seconds late coming out for the second half. The injustice boiled and largely continues.
Next UEFA, under pressure from the established European top clubs – Bayern Munich, Juventus and Manchester United – introduced FFP. City carefully ensured they complied with FFP and submitted their accounts. After which UEFA changed the FFP Rules to ensure City had failed the test. This was a disgrace, but City decided not to challenge this in the courts after much consideration.
Later in that same season City were due to play CSKA Moscow away and fans had paid for travel and hotel costs to the match when UEFA imposed a stadium closure on CSKA for their fan’s behaviour. At no point were the City fans considered in this and no refunds were made – other than for match tickets. To add insult to injury – when City played in the ‘closed’ stadium there were hundreds of CSKA fans present, which UEFA did nothing about.
Last season in the quarter final against Liverpool. The team bus was attacked and damaged and UEFA imposed a paltry fine. City had goals disallowed wrongly and whilst protesting the injustice Pep was sent off.
So, Manchester City have good reason to boo UEFA. They are a bad organisation. They really are SPECTRE. They do not exist to promote the good of the game, but to protect the elite clubs and to make money.
Yet, since I was a kid there has always been something exotic and exciting about European Football Clubs. The very names of some of these clubs are tantalising: Honved, Borussia Monchengladbach, Red Star Belgrade. The thought of Manchester City playing some of these great famous European Clubs in the greatest cup competition of all time is wonderful. That we are at the top table – even as unwanted guests – is a delight.
There is also something exciting about playing under floodlights in the evenings. The way the autumn evening light gives way to the dark so quickly in City Square. The way as winter approaches there is no daylight in the evening games – you arrive at the Blue Car Park in darkness.
The Etihad I think always looks splendid at night – like some stranded alien mothership straddling East Manchester. The way the business end of the Champions League in Spring sees the return of daylight and shock, horror – sunshine!
Remember when we played Paris Saint Germain and Real Madrid a few seasons ago on our way to the Semi Final, how blinded I was by the low sun in Block 304.
Of course, growing up matches under floodlights were different – there weren’t the modern floodlights which seamlessly cling to the stadium roof.
In the olden days we had the free-standing floodlights at each corner of the ground. Like giant pylons, and we all used to cheer when one of the massive bulbs went! Having a floodlight Subbuteo set was the pinnacle of our ambition.
My mate had one and they threw so little actual light on the pitch you still had to play with the big light on. I would still love to have one of those Subbuteo sets on a hard board with the lights, and the non-electronic scoreboard. And all the little people sat in the stands waiting for my Manchester City centre forward to dribble the ball into the net past the Dukla Prague goalkeeper.
That’s the thing isn’t it – as kids when we played football in the park with our mates we may have pretended to be Dennis Tueart or Peter Barnes, but we never pretended to be them against Accrington Stanley did we? It was always against Real Madrid or Malmo.
So, for me there is something extra exhilarating about evening football in the prestige Champions League. The smell in the air. The strange chants of the opposition fans. The abandon with which they wear flags and buy half and half scarves from the Club Shop. The darkness and the rain. The pictures painted by the lights at the Etihad across the pavements as we queue to go in.
Of course, we can boo. We can boo the UEFA anthem and remind the world of the injustices we have suffered. Or if we really want to upset them at UEFA, the elite clubs and their referees, we could just go and win the bloody thing. Now that’s a thought.