Man City reap a glory bounty for the billions they’ve spent – but trouble looms
The treble-bound Citizens have been accused of breaking the game’s finance rules.
When Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi-based owners bought control of the then struggling English Premier League side in 2008 they had a vision and a mission: to see the club ascend to the pinnacle of European soccer.
After City’s semifinal 5-1 aggregate demolition of serial Uefa Champions League winners Real Madrid midweek, that mission is almost accomplished.
The Manchester club ran rings around their esteemed opponents on an electric night at the Etihad Stadium.
The Citizens played at the peak of their powers – with the likes of Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish and Rodri leaving Madrid’s decorated collection of players stunned and stumped.
The victory was a statement. There is a new powerhouse in the world of soccer: the so-called “blue side of Manchester”.
Of course, there remains one more hurdle before the 129-year-old club can frank this claim – final match victory against three-time European champions Inter Milan in Istanbul on 10 June.
“Unbelievable. Just to be in this moment is so nice. Not many teams can do that to Real Madrid. But when we’re all together and playing, especially at home, we feel unstoppable,” said Grealish after the game.
It is the Sky Blues’ second appearance in a Champions League decider, after they made it that far as recently as 2021. Despite heading into that showdown as heavy favourites, they botched the job and handed it to underdogs Chelsea.
Now they have a chance to make amends – and to claim a rare continental treble.
They claimed a domestic treble in 2019 when they clinched the league title, the Carabao Cup and the FA Cup.
‘We make our fans happy’
After trailing Arsenal for large portions of this season, manager Pep Guardiola’s charges are currently leading the Premier League log. They are also in the FA Cup final – where they will face Manchester United, a week before their date with Inter in Istanbul.
If they take all three titles they will join “red neighbours” United, who became the first English club to win that treble in a single season over two decades ago.
Barcelona, Inter and Bayern Munich are among fewer than 10 teams to have done it.
“We’re closer,” Guardiola said. “This season is really, really good. What we’ve done already. The pleasure, the joy, how much we have fun this season, again and again. We make our fans happy, all around the world watching us, they see a good team playing. This is the biggest compliment.”
Despite their dominance domestically (where they’ve won four of the last five league titles), City are babes on the continental competition landscape.
They clocked a Champions League milestone as recently as the 2015/16 season, when they reached the semifinals for the first time in their history.
But between 2017 and 2020 they could not make it past the quarterfinal stage. Then they bounced back to push all the way to that ill-fated first final appearance.
Despite City’s continued and increasingly prevalent on-field success, the club is constantly under scrutiny off the field.
In the late 1990s, City were stumbling between divisions and a mid-table Premier League club at best. They only had two league titles (none in the Premier League era), four FA Cups and two League Cups.
Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s City Football Group swooped in 15 years ago to change the club’s trajectory and the landscape of English football – and perhaps European football if they beat Inter next month.
Sheikh Mansour, as the City owner is popularly known, is vice-president and deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a government accused of numerous human rights violations.
Global human rights watchdog Amnesty International has been at the forefront of criticism of City’s hierarchy, accusing it of “sportswashing” – using sporting success and spectacle to erase a tawdry reputation.
“The UAE’s enormous investment in Manchester City is one of football’s most brazen attempts to sportswash a country’s deeply tarnished image, through the glamour of the game,” says Amnesty International. “As a growing number of City fans will be aware, the success of the club involves a close relationship with a country that exploits migrant labour and locks up peaceful critics and human rights defenders.”
The club have also been accused of breaching financial fair play (FFP) rules. The purpose of FFP is for European clubs to operate a sustainable business model – or face punishment from governing body Uefa.
These measures followed the arrival in European soccer of ultra-wealthy owners, who pumped large amounts of money into clubs to try to obtain instant success. This left those teams dependent on income they made themselves at a disadvantage.
A hundred charges of malfeasance
City are accused of breaking these rules by the English Premier League’s hierarchy. The league said in February 2023 that City faced about 100 charges relating to financial malfeasance over a nine-year period (between 2009 and 2018).
The charges stem from an investigation into City’s financial dealings launched four years ago, after German publication Der Spiegel published “football leaks”.
According to the league, the Citizens were dishonest about figures in their books.
The Emirati-owned side were crowned English champions three times during that period and some circles have called for the club to be stripped of those league titles.
The club are also accused of not providing the league with accurate financial information relating to revenue and expenditure.
And they are said to have fibbed about how much they were paying an unnamed manager during this period, with said manager’s remuneration allegedly much higher than what was stated in his official contract.
“Accusations are that Manchester City have artificially inflated the money coming into the club, with particular respect to commercial and sponsorship deals,” says football finance expert Kieran Maguire.
“The Premier League appears to be claiming the money was actually coming from the club owner … but was being disguised as sponsorship income,” adds Maguire.
The club vehemently deny the allegations. City were previously banned for two years from the Champions League by Uefa for similar issues. They successfully appealed in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
Clubs such as Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle United – who also have Middle Eastern owners – will be watching City’s latest success and drawing inspiration for their own ambitions. DM