Manchester City wins its 7th title. But stars could come
Manchester City wrote three interlinked stories this week and sports media convention dictates we start with the most recent one: City clinched the 2022-23 Premier League title on Saturday. Arsenal’s 1-0 defeat by Nottingham Forest mercifully put the Gunners out of reach. It is City’s seventh EPL triumph since 2012 and fifth in seven seasons under Pep Guardiola.
It required a comeback after Arsenal were essentially 8 points down in early February; But in the end it was pleasant and disappointing because City has been perfect since the end of February. Guardiola’s machine – led by the record-breaking Erling Haaland, powered by the wonderful Ilkay Gündogan and Kevin De Bruyne, bolstered by Rodri and a shape-shifting defense that emerged as the league’s best in the second half of the season – rolled through the most competitive teams in World Football League without regard to the refreshing narratives Arsenal had teased.
City defeated the Gunners in mid-February to stay within reach, then threw them out in April, nearly ending that two-pronged race. In between there has been a steady stream of victories – some businesslike, some over the top – which made Saturday’s decisive win seem like the inevitable conclusion.
Arguably the best team in the sport, the Cityzens wrote the second of three stories. They defeated Real Madrid in Champions League semifinals with masterful championship. They reached their second European final in three seasons and they will surely win it.
But the third story remains inescapable. It towers above all success and clouds the footballing beauty.
A key part of the machinery, as evidenced by several rounds of credible allegations, was fraud.
The third story this week was that City have reportedly started a legal battle with the Premier League over the legality of an investigation into over 100 alleged breaches of the league’s financial rules. The Premier League made those allegations back in February, after a years-long investigation that City allegedly tried to obstruct at every stage. The alleged violations, which the club has repeatedly denied, date back to 2009 and paint a picture of disgraceful accounting and other illegal practices that helped City rise from midfielder to state-owned juggernaut in the 2010s.
The club’s only hope now is to fight back against the widespread allegations and perhaps get away with technical issues – but in some ways significant damage has already been done.
The nefariousness first came to light in 2018 when German magazine Der Spiegel published a four-part exposure of City’s manipulative dealings. In 2008 the club was bought by the Abu Dhabi ruling family; It was suddenly fueled by limitless petrostate wealth. But shortly afterwards it became clear that European football’s new spending limits, dubbed Financial Fair Play (FFP), would hamper the owners’ plan to transform City into an EPL and Champions League contender. So apparently they hatched a plan to circumvent the rules.
The FFP introduced a cap on player spending, which depended on a specific club’s revenue. According to leaked emails, the city essentially started by increasing the value of sponsorship deals with Abu Dhabi state-owned companies in order to report higher revenues, spend more on transfer fees and salaries, and still comply with the rules.
For example, according to a series of emails published by the Mirror, City had signed a sponsorship deal with Etihad Airways – the UAE’s national airline based in Abu Dhabi – which paid the club a whopping £67.5million a year. But only 8 million of those pounds actually came from Etihad; The rest would come from the holding company that Abu Dhabi’s rulers used to buy Man City. The FFP rules were designed to prevent billionaires from pumping stupid money into a club, and City brazenly dodged the rules to do just that.
Along the way, club officials showed merciless contempt for anyone who dared question them. Instead of trying to prove their innocence, they countered by saying that “the attempt to damage the club’s reputation is organized and clear.” And they would spend unlimited money on powerful lawyers to fight the allegations. When UEFA, the governing body of European football, found Man City guilty of “serious infringements” and banned City from the Champions League for two seasons, the club sued UEFA at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and won.
But it didn’t win because it was innocent, only because a statute of limitations had expired and UEFA’s evidence was not entirely conclusive.
Meanwhile, the Premier League’s own investigations were ongoing and appeared to be much more thorough.
The city reportedly refused to cooperate with her; Still, after almost four years, a remarkably extensive list of alleged violations – including false accounting and undisclosed payments to managers and players – has been presented. City will fight them all – it will reportedly pay a single lawyer the most lucrative player salaries in global football – but the clouds will remain. And they could be permanent.
The case, which could take several years to process, could carry numerous penalties. Of course, it could also lead to another City win for technical reasons or other reasons; But the Premier League would not have accused a member of such blatant cheating without any hard evidence. And none of what was leaked in 2018 has been refuted. City have previously railed against the release of these “out of context materials” which were “allegedly hacked or stolen” but have nothing obtained by Portuguese hacker Rui Pinto in a series that has become known as “Football Leaks”. proved to be illegitimate.
So there is a blemish, a potentially irremovable blemish, on all of this success. The alleged violations alone didn’t result in seven titles, of course, but they made all seven possible, allowing City to pay billions of dollars, more than any club since 2008, to assemble a side that was just two games away from the triple is removed.
They don’t necessarily discredit the brilliance of Guardiola, De Bruyne and others. Manchester City – the players and staff – will travel to Istanbul for the FA Cup final at Wembley on 3 June and the Champions League final a week later, unperturbed by any inadequacies. They will celebrate every triumph and we will celebrate their impact on the sport because it is irreversible.
But for Manchester City, the club, and Manchester City, the state-owned company, asterisks – or worse – could be to come.