By Paul Nicholson
April 8 – On Wednesday Manchester City announced it would be celebrating the 10th anniversary of its first Premier League title and that history making goal in the 93rd minute of extra time by Sergio Aguero that won it for them.
A fan event and a series of celebrations are to be held in Manchester – on Friday 13th May believe it or not – with members of the 2011-12 squad present and a statue to Aguero to be unveiled outside the Etihad Stadium.
On Thursday news broke of a reportedly on-going three-year investigation into Manchester City’s potential financial misconduct by the Premier League broke. German magazine Der Spiegel in conjunction with the European Investigative Collaborations (EIC) journalism network detailed the focus of the investigation.
The Manchester party is unlikely to be put on ice, so momentous was that win in 2012 for the club and the Premier League. But the five Premier League titles in the past 10 seasons – and the potential of another one this season – are starting to look tainted if the club are eventually found to have financially doped their way to success by breaking the Premier League’s financial fair play rules.
The timing of the news and allegations is also conspicuous in a European context with UEFA having just announced a reform of its own club financial rules (see UEFA forges ahead with financial reforms that will cap squad wages and transfer spending).
That Manchester City have been under investigation is not new news in. The Premier League originally launched an investigation in December 2018 and announced it was investigating in March 2019. Manchester City lost a ruling by the court of appeal in July 2021 challenging the right of the Premier League to continue to investigate the champions for alleged breaches of financial fair play.
Lord Justice Males said at the time: “This is an investigation which commenced in December 2018. 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.”
Manchester City have not always been unlucky with appeal courts. In July 2020, in a stunning reversal of a previous ruling by UEFA, Manchester City won an appeal against a two-year ban from European football.
The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) threw out UEFA’s sanction for alleged “serious breaches” of financial fair play (FFP), in what was arguably the most significant judgement since FFP was introduced a decade ago. To add insult to injury for UEFA, the panel also cut the club’s fine by two-thirds from 30 million to €10 million though in doing so.
What is new in the Der Spiegel story is the detail of the investigation and the allegations being investigated.
These include rule breaking payments made to under age players, the over inflation of sponsorship contracts and illegal hidden salary payments to former Man City manager Roberto Mancini.
The allegations over sponsorship agreements that were inflated above market value in order for the club to show higher income and meet financial fair requirements are not new. The new detail in these allegations is that the club sponsors from Abu Dhabi didn’t actually pay all the sponsorship fee reported, but in fact only made a portion of the payment with the balance being paid to the club by owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family.
The allegations over sponsorship inflation were at the centre of the ban imposed by UEFA but which CAS overturned, ruling that there was no “conclusive evidence” that the club disguised equity funding as sponsorship.
CAS did say that Man City had showed a “blatant disregard” to UEFA’s investigation into potential FFP breaches.
For the Premier League investigators it looks as though the proof that UEFA couldn’t find Man City broke the regulations is now beginning to emerge.
The club have always maintained that they have operated within the rules. Whether they have been stretched or broken is still to be formally determined but Man City are unlikely to be able to count on much support from their fellow Premier League clubs.
Whatever happens, the party planned to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of their first Premier League win is already starting to look a little flat.
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