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Manchester City and the Bloody Struggle to Keep It All


Credit...Reuters

The Premier League has accused its serial champion of using misleading accounting, secret deals and legal obstruction to sidestep financial rules. The club is digging in for its biggest fight yet.

The phone rang at 8 a.m., and the Manchester City communications official answered right away. A reporter was on the line, requesting comment on the news emanating from the Middle East that morning in 2008: that City, a Premier League soccer team with an unremarkable history and dust gathering in its trophy cabinet, had just been purchased by a wealthy Arab sheikh, the brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates.

“Have we?” the City official replied, apparently unaware that the deal that would transform City’s fortunes and upend European soccer had been finalized overnight. “I’m going to have to call you back.”

Within an hour, the news that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan had become the owner of Manchester City was out. A new era had begun. With the stroke of a pen, a venerable, well-liked and occasionally tragicomic member of English soccer’s establishment had become one of the richest teams on the planet, a usurper-in-waiting to the game’s elite.

Over the next decade, that is precisely what has happened.

Bankrolled by its Gulf ownership’s ambition and seemingly limitless wealth, City began signing star players and collecting trophies one, two, three at a time. In doing so, it not only toppled its neighbor and rival, Manchester United, as the pre-eminent sporting force in its city, it also left the rest of the Premier League trailing in its wake, too.

But its successes and its spending have brought years of scrutiny, and grumbling that Manchester City — through inflated sponsorships, secret contracts and muscular legal maneuvering — wasn’t playing by the same financial rules as everyone else.

On Feb. 6, the Premier League made that case, too, quietly uploading a statement to its website announcing that it had charged City with a laundry list of financial rules violations. In their most basic interpretation, the 115 charges make a stunning allegation: that the league’s serial champion is also a serial cheat.

City has expressed surprise at the charges. The club has long rejected claims of financial misdeeds as an “organized and clear attempt” to damage its reputation. Last week, it said it welcomed the chance to present its “comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence” that it had done nothing wrong.

The stakes are hard to overstate. Under the rules of the Premier League, City, if it is found guilty, faces a range of punishments up to and including expulsion from the league. It is little wonder, then, that a club that has spent years waging clandestine legal wars to defend its interests, and its name, would now be digging in for its most serious fight yet, one that threatens to bring all that it has built crashing down.

Manchester City might be the only soccer club in England whose fans would unfurl a 100-foot banner to herald the hiring of the team’s newest lawyer. Yet there it was on Sunday: six-foot-high block letters in City’s sky blue, bracketed by the club’s crest and the lawyer’s photo and declaring, “Pannick on the Streets of London.”

The banner, a winking reference to a song by the Smiths, celebrated the news that City, bracing for its battle with the Premier League, had retained the services of the respected British lawyer David Pannick. And while the fans’ public devotion to the club’s newest cause, and its newest champion, was colorful, it was not particularly unusual.

Many of those same fans have long cheered City’s pugnacious stance in the face of accusations and its reliance on an army of lawyers to defend the club’s interests, be it in financial cases brought by European soccer’s governing body, UEFA; accusations that its wealth has unfairly tilted the playing field; or threats of sporting sanctions from the Premier League or anyone else.

The supporters’ disdain is matched by the official club line: Manager Pep Guardiola last week painted the club as a victim of attempts to undermine it by its rivals, days before the crowd at City’s stadium booed the Premier League’s pregame anthem — adding it to the UEFA version, which it has jeered for years — and sang, “We’re Man City and we’ll cheat when we want!

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A banner hanging in the stands at Etihad Stadium that reads, “Pannick on the Streets of London.”
Manchester City fans welcomed the club’s hiring of a high-powered lawyer as if it had signed a new striker.Credit...Phil Noble/Reuters

Pannick, a bespectacled, Oxford-educated 66-year-old, is no stranger to such fights. In 2020, he advised Manchester City in its successful appeal of one of the harshest sanctions soccer’s financial regulators had ever handed out: a two-year ban from the Champions League, the sport’s richest club competition.

That case had grown out of an infamous leak of a trove of City emails, messages and documents known as Football Leaks. The product of a hacking campaign led by a Portuguese college dropout, the documents appeared to reveal years of a financial sleight of hand in which City evaded soccer’s cost-control rules by inflating the value of its sponsorship revenues at the same time it was obscuring the rising costs on its balance sheet.

But the leaks also pulled back the curtain on much more: the contempt that City executives and their lawyers held for soccer’s financial rules and the individuals tasked with enforcing them; a bare-knuckle legal strategy to overwhelm opponents with filings and expenses in a legal war of attrition; and a willingness, directed from the upper reaches of the club, to fight any challenge to its business, and its ambitions, to the bitter end.

In one email, a top City lawyer wrote that Khaldoon al Mubarak, the team’s chairman, had said “he would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years” than agree to any financial penalty. In another, a lawyer appeared to celebrate the death in 2014 of Jean-Luc Dehaene, the chief financial investigator of the seven-member UEFA panel responsible for policing club finances.

“One down, six to go,” Simon Cliff, City’s legal chief, replied to a colleague who informed him of Dehaene’s death.

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Manchester City’s chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, in 2018. He has presided over six Premier League titles.Credit...Carl Recine/Reuters

Manchester City’s new Gulf owners hit the ground running.

Only hours after the buyout by Sheikh Mansour was announced, the club signaled nothing would get in the way of its plan to join soccer’s elite by acquiring Robinho, a Brazilian forward then at Real Madrid. The price was the highest ever paid by a British club for a single player.

Within months, the deep pockets of the Abu Dhabi United Group, the investment vehicle for the new ownership, and a new class of wealthy owners were already driving up prices for players across Europe. And soccer’s old guard began pushing back.

Worried about growing losses across the industry and alarmed by the seemingly unlimited spending ability of Russian billionaires like Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich and multibillion-dollar Gulf investment funds like the one that controlled City, European soccer officials announced plans for new cost-control regulations aimed at tackling clubs’ soaring losses and growing debts. The Premier League, too, began to formulate its own financial regulations.

For City, caps on unfettered spending represented clear roadblocks to its pursuit of more entrenched rivals, since the regulations — in their crudest form — limited the amount of money clubs could lose in pursuit of on-field success. So it became imperative to find new sources of income before the regulations came into effect.

City’s management knew exactly where to look. One after another, companies linked to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates signed on as City sponsors. The national flag carrier Etihad Airways would soon see its name emblazoned across City sky-blue shirts. The stadium where it played its home games would soon be renamed for the company, too. Etisalat, a telecommunications company that is majority owned by the Emirati government, joined up, too, as would several others.

The deals helped finance the team’s sudden rise — City won the Premier League title on the final day of the 2012 season, and then added another two years later — but they did not cover all of the team’s spending, and that caught the eye of soccer’s financial regulators. In 2014, Manchester City and another Gulf-backed club with big ambitions, the Qatar-owned Paris St.-Germain, agreed to a settlement with UEFA after being found to have been in breach of the governing body’s financial regulations.

A multimillion-dollar fine was imposed, an outcome palatable to City, but the chief investigator in the case was so angered by the settlement that he quit on the day it was announced. City, meanwhile, went right on spending: on players, on coaches and on lawyers.

In 2018, months after Manchester City’s latest star signing, Guardiola, clinched the first of his four league titles at the club, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a four-part series that it said exposed the foundations underpinning City’s rise.

Citing scores of leaked documents and emails, Der Spiegel rolled out one revelation after another. In one article, it reported that one of City’s former managers had reportedly been paid more than his annual salary — almost $2 million — for a four-day consultancy contract with another soccer team, one based in Abu Dhabi and also owned by Sheikh Mansour. In another, it said that Etihad, City’s main sponsor, was paying only a fraction of a sponsorship deal said to be worth £67.5 million ($81 million) per season. A vast majority of the money, the article said, was covered by other entities linked to City’s owners or the government of the U.A.E.

“We mustn’t show the partner supplement if it is going outside the club,” City’s head of finance, Andrew Widdowson, wrote in one leaked email. Manchester City has consistently refused to comment on the content of the leaks because it was “criminally obtained.”

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Pep Guardiola has coached Manchester City to four Premier League titles in six seasons at the club. His other teams finished second and third.Credit...Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via, Reuters

Years later, Simon Pearce, a City board member and a key adviser to the ruler of the U.A.E., insisted while giving evidence in an appeal hearing at the Court of Arbitration for Sport that he had “absolutely, categorically not” arranged for payments to be made to Etihad so it could redirect them to City as sponsorship fees. But Der Spiegel promptly published emails that appeared to show him doing just that. (Manchester City did not respond to a request for an explanation of why Pearce’s testimony in court was at odds with emails he had apparently written to facilitate the payments.)

UEFA took notice of the articles and, in late 2018, it said it had opened an investigation into City’s finances. The Premier League, with much less fanfare, did the same.

UEFA investigators found out almost immediately that getting City to cooperate in their inquiry — assistance that was required under the governing body’s statutes — would be one of their biggest challenges.

Yves Leterme, the chief investigator in the case, told The New York Times that the case dragged on for month after month as requests for documents were rejected and key witnesses were not made available. Hearings at UEFA’s glass-and-steel headquarters in Nyon, a Swiss town on the banks of Lake Geneva, frequently took place in an atmosphere described by those present as tense. And City’s army of lawyers — its legal staff is so vast that it now resembles an in-house law firm — pushed back at every turn.

“It was very difficult because they spontaneously didn’t file the right figures, and when we asked for information they always started proceedings and arguments going back and forth,” Leterme said.

Cooperation was not the only difficulty. City’s direct links to Abu Dhabi meant many major accounting firms — wary of jeopardizing rich contracts in the Gulf — were unwilling to take part in the forensic analysis of the club’s accounts, according to others involved.

The sense of paranoia around the process only grew when an independent forensic accountant hired to assist the investigators took his car in for service and discovered a tracking device had been attached to it. There was no evidence the bug had any connection to the City case — the accountant was working on several cases at the time — but its discovery was known among others involved in the investigation.

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City has built out its fan base by making victory celebrations a rite of most springs.Credit...Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

By the time the UEFA investigators finished their work, though, they were convinced that City had committed “a series of very serious breaches” between 2012 and 2016. They calculated sponsorship revenue had been overstated by more than £200 million (about $243 million) in that four-year window alone. A few months later, a judiciary chamber issued its ruling in the case, agreeing with Leterme’s suggestion that City be expelled from the Champions League, UEFA’s richest competition, for two years.

The penalty would have been the harshest ever handed down for breaking fiscal regulations, but City promptly began a new legal fight, bringing an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

City has since claimed the ruling that followed as a total vindication of its financial operations, but the court had not weighed in on the specifics of the most serious charges. Instead, City had persuaded the judges that a majority of the case was time barred under UEFA’s own rules.

The technicality invoked by City’s lawyers clinched the case. The Champions League ban was thrown out.

While UEFA was winning, and then losing, its fight with Manchester City, the Premier League had come under pressure from its own teams to look into City’s books. In 2019, the league finally confirmed that it was. On Monday of last week, it laid out its charges — the product of more than four years of exhausting, expensive and attritional combat with City’s lawyers.

Unlike UEFA, however, the Premier League has no time limit on how far back its investigations can reach. An independent disciplinary panel is being convened to hear the City case. Its result might not be known for months, or even years.

Leterme, though, said he expected that the league’s inquiry — however long it takes — will eventually arrive at the same conclusion he and his colleagues did. “I am convinced that they have been cheating,” he said, “and I am convinced at least they have not been cooperating as they should have been.”

City, meanwhile, is digging in for its latest fight, and hiring lawyers like Pannick to guide it. Among the charges it faces are several suggesting it has obstructed the Premier League investigation, accusations mirrored by those alleged in the UEFA case. The club has already gone to court to challenge the league’s jurisdiction to investigate it, and then returned to try to keep details of those hearings quiet. “They have tried to bury them in paper,” said one person familiar with the Premier League case.

The slow pace of the investigation was noted by Stephen Males, one of the High Court judges that heard City’s attempt to keep quiet the details of its challenge to the Premier League’s authority.

“This is an investigation which commenced in December 2018,” Males wrote. “It is surprising, and a matter of legitimate public concern, that so little progress has been made after two and a half years — during which, it may be noted, the club has twice been crowned as Premier League champions.”

City would go on to add another title before the Premier League announced its charges — its sixth in just over a decade. By the time the verdict in Manchester City vs. the Premier League arrives, it may have added yet more. Whether those will be something to celebrate may not be clear for some time.

Rory Smith contributed reporting.

Tariq Panja covers some of the darker corners of the global sports industry. He is also a co-author of “Football’s Secret Trade,” an exposé on soccer’s multibillion-dollar player trading industry. More about Tariq Panja

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