As of early 2023, Manchester City now face over 100 charges of financial breaches from the Premier League. These charges span a time frame of nine seasons – from 2009/2010 to 2017/2018. This is an incredibly serious accusation which throws up a range of complex legal issues. Let’s start with an excerpt from an official statement from the league:
“In accordance with Premier League Rule W.82.1, the Premier League confirms that it has today referred a number of alleged breaches of the Premier League Rules by Manchester City Football Club to a Commission under Premier League Rule W.3.4.”
The statement goes on to subdivide its allegations into 5 categories. To summarise:
The Premier League is suggesting that Manchester City have violated all 5 requirements. This article will take a closer look at a few of the key issues located within the massive body of allegations.
Much of the evidence existing which seems to suggest such financial discrepancies has apparently been sourced from an illegal hacking a few years back which led to the publication of confidential internal emails in the German news outlet Der Spiegel. The nature and dates of the evidence itself is another matter of great contention.
There are a number of issues at play here – one of the most significant is a matter of sponsorship. It has been suggested that Manchester City’s sponsorship deal with Etisalat (a Middle-East telecommunications company) lasting from 2012 onwards was not properly recorded – large sums of money are recorded as part of a sponsorship deal, whereas they may, in fact, have been illegal cash injections from elsewhere.
Other issues include possible hidden purchases of underage players (there are strict regulations on these matters in international football), and supplementing the wages of former manager Roberto Mancini via a secret contract which had him listed as a consultant.
The main theme present here, as you’ve likely gathered, is that Manchester City appear to have understated many of their financial transactions. By doing so, they would have avoided tighter financial fair play (FFP) regulations. In short, FFP stops clubs from spending more than they earn. By limiting the amount of expenditure on their balance sheets (perhaps by illegal means, as the Premier League are suggesting), the club would have been able to spend greater sums of money – for example being able to finance huge player transfers.
There is another issue present, too. While there has been an increasing sense of tension in football for some time around foreign investment and club ownership (especially in relation to middle-East based regimes which are now linked to both Manchester City and, more recently, Newcastle), clubs have sought to maintain a sense of independence in the public eye, often stating that their ownership is purely private (in other words – ‘the ruler of that nation owns our club, not the nation itself – the two are completely separate’). The extent to which Manchester City’s ownership by Sheikh Mansour since 2008 is connected to the state of UAE (United Arab Emirates) or Abu Dhabi. Many of the leaked emails have suggested that some of Manchester City’s income may in fact have been sourced from the state itself. Leaked 2012 emails between City’s then head of finance Andrew Widdowson and government agencies in Abu Dhabi such as the Abu Dhabi Investment and Development Group (ADUG) have been brought to light in recent months, in which he appears to request large sums of money be sent across. ADUG is a fund owned by Sheikh Mansour himself – the United Arab Emirates maintain that it is not connected to the state, but numerous media outlets have recently suggested otherwise.
This is not the first time that Manchester City have been accused of breaching financial rules. In 2020, they managed to overturn what was initially a very serious penalty – UEFA accused them of serious financial fair play breaches between 2012 and 2016, and suggested that they may be banned from European competitions, most notably, the Champions League which is a huge source of income for many major clubs. The Premier League took note of the case as a whole and opened their own investigation. The Court of Arbitration and Sport (CAS) eventually overturned the UEFA decision, but noted that one of the main reasons they did so was the fact that much of the evidence (namely the Der Spiegel documents) did not conform to a five-year time frame which UEFA maintains on such proceedings. The Premier League, it should be noted, have no such timeframe in place – as such, these charges are potentially far more dangerous.
If Manchester City are found guilty, the potential consequences could be extremely severe. Punishments range anywhere along a spectrum from fines to points deduction to expulsion from the entire league (akin to relegation). The ‘Commissioner’s Powers’ section of the Premier League handbook (specifically W.51) lays out some of these potential punishments for a club found guilty – expulsion (W.51.4.4), points deduction (W.51.4.2) and fines (W.51.2) are clearly referenced. Some fans have speculated that past league titles from the time period in question could also be stripped (they won the league 3 times during these seasons) – the jury is out for now, but this appears less likely.
Like most legal proceedings, this case will take a considerable amount of time. Nick De Marco KC, arguably the top football barrister in the country, stated in The Times that he believes the case could last up to four years given the amount of charges and complexity of proceedings. There are likely to be many sets of appeals and hurdles along the way for both sides, and Manchester City will certainly fight to the end – the potential outcomes if they are found guilty, as already highlighted above, would be absolutely devastating if enacted. The investigation continues for now – aspiring lawyers interested in the fields of sports law and football law are encouraged to keep a keen eye on the developments.
By Declan Peters
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