KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Manchester City confront Shakhtar Donetsk on the pitch in the Champions League tonight while confronting a stream of unpleasant allegations off it concerning the club’s strategic approach to the pursuit of European power.
If the Football Leaks information is correct then the Premier League champions benefited three times over from a plan to circumvent UEFA’s financial fair play regulations.
It is suggested that firstly they broke the rules by not restricting spending in line with revenue; secondly, they used an offshore company to invest extra monies from the Abu Dhabi owners; and thirdly they exerted heavy pressure on UEFA, and then general secretary Gianni Infantino in particular, to ‘go easy’ on sanctions.
Reaction in the English game and around City has been mixed. This is, after all, the country whose professional game is governed by free-market capitalism. Money not only talks, money wins . . . and fans and the media like winners.
City were bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group, an investment vehicle of the Gulf state, in 2008. The new owners immediately threw vast sums of money at the club. They bought world-class players, paid world-class wages, contracted arguably the most successful modern manager, upgraded the already-comparatively new stadium, built a state-of-the-art training centre and invested generously in local community projects.
So far that has been rewarded with Premier League success in 2012, 2014 and 2018, one FA Cup, three League Cups and the fifth-highest revenue in football at €527.7m.
But then along came financial fair play.
In 2014 City were found guilty of breaking the rules and were punished with a fine, salary cap, transfer cap and squad size reduction. City fans were angry. Hence not only do they regularly jeer the Champions League anthem but they stay away from games. A 55 000-capacity stadium consistently averages only 45,000 for group matches.
So City, both at board level and on the terraces, have no love for UEFA. Much of the fan response to the Football Leaks revelations is that Europe’s establishment fears City because it wants to protect ‘old money’ from ‘new money.’
Heavy spending by foreign owners is no longer a big issue in English football. It is a decade since Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger complained about “financial doping.” But his anger and envy was directed at Chelsea, long before City’s explosion. City’s subsequent spending makes Roman Abramovich’s investment look like small change.
Where did the money come from?
The Football Leaks documents quoted by German news magazine Der Spiegel suggest that ADUG channelled investment into the club in the guise of sponsorship deals with Abu Dhabi companies. They claim that those deals were not as big as declared, and that owner Sheikh Mansour made up the shortfall via a complex network of offshore companies.
Senior executive Simon Pearce is quoted as saying in an email: “As we discussed, the annual direct obligation for Aabar is £3m. The remaining £12m will come from alternative sources provided by His Highness.”
Bonus in defeat
There is even an allegation that a City sponsor was persuaded to pay a £5m bonus for winning the FA Cup in 2013 even though they lost the final to Wigan.
City denied any wrongdoing when the first tranche of documents were published last Friday, saying: “We will not be providing any comment on out of context materials purportedly hacked or stolen from City Football Group and Manchester City personnel and associated people. The attempt to damage the club’s reputation is organised and clear.”
Manager Guardiola has said: “We want to follow the rules. All I know is that we are not the only club to spend a lot of money, if you want to achieve another level that is what you have to do.
“When I was in Spain and Germany you would always hear that Manchester City was just about money. Now I am on the inside I know something different. Everyone here is very professional and they try to do things in the right way.”
High-profile outsiders have been reluctant to comment. Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho said: “I have thoughts from a few years ago but I keep the thoughts to myself.”
One point is incontrovertible: Financial fair play was created to fight the ‘debt mountain’ but City are now the most financially secure club in English – and perhaps European – football.