KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTS: The man who pushed Manchester City back into UEFA sights is currently in a Portuguese jail awaiting trial on 147 counts relating to illegal hacking of the business secrets of top clubs Benfica, Sporting and Porto.
Rui Pinto is not accused of anything outside Portuguese jurisdiction but he is the individual centrally responsible – on his own admission – of delving beyond the dirty firewalls of European football businessmen.
He calls himself a whistleblower; to the clubs, their officials and agents he is a criminal hacker.
Either way, Rui Pinto and his unknown accomplices came up with the documentation on which German news magazine Der Spiegel and the Football Leaks operation feasted to City’s anger in November 2018.
City were alleged to have benefited three times over from a plan to circumvent the European federation’s financial fair play regulations.
Firstly they allegedly 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.
City had been 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.
At that point this investment had 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 furious. Hence they regularly jeer the Champions League anthem and have even stayed away from games. A 55 000-capacity stadium has averaged 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.’
But City’s attempt in 2019 to persuade the Court of Arbitration to halt the UEFA investigation in its tracks was dismissed. Hence the latest turn of events.
Heavy spending by foreign owners is no longer a big issue in English football.
It is more than a decade since the then Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger complained about “financial doping.” But his anger and envy had been 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 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 was quoted as saying in an one : “As we discussed, the annual direct obligation for Aabar is £3m. The remaining £12m will come from alternative sources provided by His Highness.”
There was even an allegation that a City sponsor had been 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, 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.”
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 and even world football.