After nine years and more than £1bn, Roman Abramovich finally got his prize on Saturday when Didier Drogba slotted home the winning penalty in the Champions League final. A week earlier, another mineral fortune propelled Manchester City to the Premier League title, spending just shy of £1bn in four years to achieve their goal.
Teams with more money to spend have always won more trophies because money buys the best talent, and clubs have always spent more than they could afford in buying that talent, underwritten by wealthy owners hungry for glory.
But something of an altogether different magnitude is going on with Manchester City and Chelsea, and it should be a cause for concern. Manchester City have at their disposal the profits from the oil wealth of a petro-state, a vast sum of money that utterly dwarves the resources available to anyone else. Estimates of Abramovich's net worth vary, but put him comfortably in the front rank of Europe's club owners.
Of course, Chelsea finished sixth in the league, while City won the competition with the last kick of the last game on goal difference; hardly evidence of a petrodollar jackboot stamping on the neck of competitive balance. That misses the critical point that sport – still – comes down to percentages. What great wealth gives is the opportunity to make those percentages come out in your favour more often.
The crucial goals for City were scored by strikers who cost more than the annual turnover of nearly half of the other clubs they play against. To paraphrase Arnold Palmer, the more you spend on the best players, the luckier you get.
The downside for everyone else is a trail of debt-ridden clubs, broken by trying to keep up. We know from "normal" economic life, debt is a consequence of rising inequality, and football simply doesn't allow you to opt out of keeping up with the Joneses.
It's this economic problem that leads to the moral one. The default position of most people in football has been to wonder why there's any fuss; in the traditional worldview, all new money is to the good, regardless of provenance and impact. Who cares where the guy got the money from, as long as he's got it?
And so Manchester City became owned by the deposed Thai prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra; a good guy to play golf with, said the club's then-CEO Garry Cook. As Amnesty International pointed out, he was much less engaging when it came to summary executions of suspected criminals. His funds soon proved inadequate to City's needs, and so they traded up to the ruling family of Abu Dhabi.
In a sense, all that's happened is that a local wealthy class have been inadequate to the sums needed to subsidise a modern football club, and the task has fallen to a global elite who are attracted to the sport's ability to render us blind to the provenance of their wealth.
As Aguero scored his goal, people were talking about the owners having fulfilled a dream, obscuring the grim nightmare of life in Abu Dhabi as an indentured labourer or political prisoner, unable to vote with either their hands or their feet. Drogba's penalty too brought fawning comment about Abramovich finally having achieved his goal, as if failing to win the European Cup were an arduous labour on a par with that endured by the vast majority of Russians, denuded of their country's wealth by the oligarchs in the 1990s.
Of course, football owners have rarely been card-carrying socialists, but it's one thing to have reactionary views in the boardroom, quite another to be in a position to enforce them on a whole state. The league champions are autocratic rulers of a country whose wealth comes through the continued consumption of the fossil fuels dangerously heating our planet.
Most of the league's owners are part of the 1% whose avarice is a defining issue of our time, spending money with impunity while national exchequers are emptied and the public realm gets degraded in an age of austerity.
Sport's cheerleaders will urge us to ignore these mere trifles, and focus on the drama; escapism has always been part of its appeal. But English football, like the Olympics and the World Cup, is taking its place on the wrong side of the key dividing lines of our century, and we can't– and shouldn't – escape from that.
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