KEVIN De Bruyne was the first to say it publicly, but many of his Manchester City team-mates will have been thinking the same thing.
“Two years would be long, but in the case of one year I might see,” he told newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws in his native Belgium. “I'm just waiting.”
De Bruyne was referred to the two-year Champions League ban, set to come into force in the 2020-21 season, levied against City by UEFA for "serious breaches" of club licensing and financial fair play regulations.
City have maintained their innocence and intention to appeal the decision from the outset. And the fact the coronavirus pandemic has prevented the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) from convening in recent weeks, thus creating a backlog of cases to be heard, means City might yet find themselves present in next season’s Champions League if their appeal process is not completed before the campaign begins.
That would only delay the uncertainty City’s best players are undoubtedly feeling, though.
Many will surely echo De Bruyne’s sentiment in private, feeling two years outside football’s most glamourous and prestigious club competition would be a difficult pill to swallow. And, if the ban is upheld, they will face a difficult decision over whether to agitate for a move to a club able to offer what City, for the next two years, cannot.
Manager Pep Guardiola claims the club have made him privy to evidence they plan to cite in their appeal, trusting City’s protestations of innocence and confident the verdict will be overturned.
“We were under suspicion for a long time,” he said in February. “We have the right to appeal. I trust with the people in my club, they explain the reasons, they showed me the arguments and the proof. If finally it doesn’t happen we have to accept and move forward. My trust is with the club. I know them. We have another instance – we are going to see what happens with CAS.”
But if City’s appeal is unsuccessful, Guardiola, too, would face a similar quandary to his best players. The Catalan tactician is lauded as arguably the finest and most influential manager of his generation. Having not won the competition since 2011, he is desperate for a third Champions League triumph.
Guardiola might find it easier than most to stick with City and the grand project he has shaped over the last four years, but the 49-year-old has always maintained he does not see himself managing into old age, so a two-year hiatus from Europe’s top table would be far from ideal.
A significant factor in strengthening City’s ability to maintain their top talent, should their ban remain in place, is that their ability to continue to offer top-end wages and fees for players is pandemic-proof; the same cannot be said of most of the continent’s biggest clubs, the likes whom any want-away City player might have considered fleeing to under normal circumstances.
Kevin De Bruyne has hinted that he could leave Manchester City if their two-year Champions League ban is upheld. pic.twitter.com/Lmu7Ut3KmI
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) May 3, 2020
But for De Bruyne, who is 28 years old, entering his peak years and currently widely considered to be the best midfielder in the world, it is a matter of legacy.
With his current level of ability, experience and relative youth, he has never been more empowered to affect games on the biggest stage, to lay down his marker as one of the best players of his generation. And there is no better club for him to achieve that with than City, a club built for such success and striving towards it ever more intently. Unless, of course, they are forcibly removed from that high stage for a significant period.
City’s Champions League uncertainty had been lost in the wider worries of football and the world until De Bruyne’s recent comments shed new light on their predicament.
Every major club in Europe would want to sign De Bruyne were he to make himself available, likewise many of his City colleagues. There isn’t a team with Champions League ambitions that the Belgian – whose 16 assists before the game was forced into global shutdown had him on course to set a new Premier League record for goals created in a single season – would not improve.
But it remains to be seen how many clubs will be able afford him and players of his calibre once football returns and is able to figure out its new normal. Just as there is uncertainty surrounding City’s immediate future in – or out – of Champions League, it is impossible to predict what options will be there for those wanting to jump ship.