ROB DRAPER: Manchester City's men in suits will have their reckoning

ROB DRAPER: Manchester City’s football is dazzling, sublime and now predictable. But can we really celebrate when the men in suits are still to have their day of reckoning with 115 Premier League charges hanging over them?

  • Man City’s chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, has helped shape the modern game
  • The club’s repeated success brings up the question of what football is about
  • City ‘launch legal challenge against their 115 charges of financial rule breaks 

Football is about men in boots, not men in suits, a colleague reminded me last week, quoting the advice of a wise sports editor from the days before women’s football became the phenomenon it is now.

The game is about players, not owners and directors. The glory game, as Danny Blanchflower christened it, is about nights like last Wednesday at the Etihad, that roar of support, the passion of fans, the sheer majesty of a player like Kevin De Bruyne, the exhilaration of Erling Haaland, the magician-like impishness of Bernardo Silva and the joy of Jack Grealish.

Not since Barcelona overwhelmed Manchester United at Wembley in 2011 have we seen anything quite like Manchester City’s 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid. Fabio Capello’s AC Milan beat Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League final in 1994 in the game of that decade. This was a similar scale of evisceration, a triumph of Pep Guardiola’s footballing mind and a tactical landmark for the ages.

We have witnessed extraordinary European nights and Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Barcelona tops City’s achievement for sheer drama and jaw-dropping incredulity. Yet there has been nothing quite so dominant in a clash of two teams acknowledged as Europe’s best.

And that is the problem City have. Their brilliance has become predictable. Jeopardy is waning. There perhaps hasn’t been as one-sided a European Cup/Champions League final as Inter v Manchester City since Barcelona took on Steaua Bucharest in 1986. (Spoiler alert: Steaua won on penalties. Anything can happen.)

Manchester City step closer to making history with their third Premier League win in a row

Their demolition of Real Madrid has landed them a place in the Champions League final

But City’s success has been a combination of the strength of both the men in boots and the men in suits

So, while it is about the men in boots, it also about men in suits, because Khaldoon Al Mubarak, City’s chairman, has made football like this. Back in 2014, when City had their first brush with UEFA over financial fair play regulations, City’s legal counsel revealed in an email that Al Mubarak ‘says he would rather spend £30m on the best 50 lawyers in the world and sue them [UEFA] for the next 10 years’ rather than agree to a financial penalty that UEFA were proposing.

We’re now 13 years in from when the first alleged offences of topping up sponsorship with sovereign wealth of Abu Dhabi were recorded and the lawyers’ bill will be well over £30million, as City continue their fight, now against the Premier League’s 115 charges of inaccurate financial reporting, non co-operation and not providing full details of a manager’s and players’ remuneration.

Their latest salvo last week was to object to the head of the Premier League’s independent judicial panel, Murray Rosen KC. His chambers website says he is an Arsenal fan. If that is the basis of their complaint, we are, as one observer pointed out, already at the level of debate usually reserved for a Twitter spat. But it would be consistent with the Al Mubarak strategy of kicking the can down the road. And what’s a few more thousands to the lawyers when the GDP of Abu Dhabi was $299billion last year, party thanks to soaring oil prices? 

It’s not just about the money, though. Every Manchester City executive would stress that and they would be right. If it were, they would have been European champions long ago. And Manchester United would go toe to toe with them every year in the Premier League. Manchester City’s turnover was an Ancelotti-eyebrow-raising £613m in 2022 and United’s was £583m. A properly-run football club should have been able to sustain title races in recent years but United haven’t been that for a long time.

Yet it is also about the money and the ability of others to compete with a nation state. For those that insist that Man City is a private investment, owner Sheik Mansour is vice-president, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Presidential Court of the United Arab Emirates, while chairman Al Mubarak is also the chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority, which is the office of Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s leader, the President of the United Arab Emirates and Mansour’s brother. Mubarak is also CEO of Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, whose chairman is Sheik Mansour and whose former chairman was Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed.

Khaldoon Al Mubarak (left) has in part helped shape the modern footballing landscape 

And Al Mubarak is adept at wearing those different hats. So, when City’s shirt sponsor Nexen was announced in 2017, Mubadala separately announced a private equity investment in Nexen. And when US private equity firm Silver Lake announced a $500m investment in City Football Group in November 2019, shortly after, in September 2020, Mubadala announced a £2bn investment in Silver Lake.

Indeed, we have Arsenal and Liverpool to thank that only two of City’s five title wins in the last six years have been runaways. A year ago, Tim Payton of the Arsenal Supporters Trust, one of the fans who played a key role in bringing down the Super League, said: ‘Because Liverpool have been so amazingly good and outperformed the metrics, it’s hidden the fact that we’re getting very close to same problem with City as Germany have with Bayern Munich.’

Little did he know that Arsenal would take up the slack when Liverpool faltered this season, but the fact that we are casting two Super League conspirators, the biggest clubs in the country after United, as plucky underdogs gives you an idea of the issue. Arsenal aren’t exactly Leicester 2016.

Until that night at the Etihad when Arsenal were picked apart, it was an intriguing title race, so it’s arguable that there’s nothing to see here, just the natural cycle of ups and downs of football, with City edging out their rival at present. And it’s not like we haven’t been here before. In 1984, Liverpool also won their fifth title in six years. That year they too won a treble, adding the European Cup and the League Cup.

There was debate about whether their dominance was good for the English game. They also used their economic power to maintain their superiority, but in a period when gate receipts were king, Anfield was only the third-biggest stadium in the old First Division behind Old Trafford and Highbury.

More importantly, they were tactically ahead of the rest and better run behind the scenes, all of which is also true of City. At the moment, Guardiola is better than anyone in the Premier League — Sam Allardyce included — though Jurgen Klopp has been his equal.

Roberto De Zerbi and Mikel Arteta might be future candidates to challenge his thinking, at which point City will presumably snap them up as Pep’s successor.

Or maybe they won’t need to. Gary Neville, reflecting on the similarities between Sir Alex Ferguson’s era and Guardiola, said: ‘People have always said to me, “You can’t do a Ferguson any more”. Well, hang on a minute! We’re watching it before our eyes. How long has Pep been at City? It is seven years now. We’re saying you can’t do it at these big clubs any more, you can’t do it for a long time. We need to wake up. If he stays another few years, he’ll have been there for 10 years.’

Man City’s rout of Arsenal was a display of the Manchester side’s unflinching dominance

After being purchased by a Saudi-backed consortium in 2021, Newcastle could yet feature in a two-horse race with City

Given the progress Newcastle are making, and the sensible way the club are run, with Dan Ashworth as the Txiki Begiristain sporting director figure, it is quite possible that we will eventually have a competitive two-horse race every year, as Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi duke it out on the playing fields of England. If Qatar take over at Manchester United, then the whole complexity of the Arabian peninsula’s politics could become the Premier League’s to own.

Which brings us back to question what is football is about? Those men and women in boots or those nation states with oil wells and gas reserves to burn and armies of lawyers to back them up?

The feeling now is that some of City’s opponents are pinning their hopes on the Premier League charges. The timeframe for that inquiry is open ended but when a judgment does come, it feels like it will either vindicate City and set the template for the decade ahead or morally undermine the whole project. It has become that polarised.

When UEFA tried to charge City with breaking spending rules to fund the team, there seemed a good prima facie case. Internal emails that read ‘the annual direct obligation for Aabar [a team sponsor] is £3m …the remaining £12m requirement will come from alternative sources provided by His Highness’ or ‘As you are aware, Etihad’s [team sponsor] commitment is for a £4m and the remaining balance [£8m] is handled separately by the Executive Affairs Authority,’ which is the office of Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed, might have given the impression that City were simply topping up sponsorship deals with sovereign wealth.

And the fact that City paid £1.45m of Roberto Mancini’s salary, but he was also paid £1.75m as a consultant to Sheik Mansour’s other team, Al Jazira, might appear odd when that the full-time day job was at City. To be fair, Al Jazira did win the UAE Pro League in those years, so it is possible Mancini is the world’s greatest part-time consultant and was worth every penny. 

City’s lawyers explained to the Court of Arbitration of Sport that the emails were misleading, that UEFA had identified the wrong ‘His Highness’ and the City executives writing the emails hadn’t properly understood the funding structure at the time. The CAS panel outlined the magnitude of the issue. Testifying under Swiss law standards of perjury, numerous executives at City and from blue chip Abu Dhabi firms had told the court that it absolutely wasn’t the case that sponsorships deals for City had been topped up by Sheik Mansour and Abu Dhabi so they could break the rules and spend what they want.

And so the CAS wrote in their summary, which broadly cleared City, that ‘a finding that Etihad’s sponsorship contributions were funded or procured to be funded by His Highness Sheik Mansour and/or [his company] Abu Dhabi United Group would require a conclusion that the evidence of several high ranking officials of large international commercial enterprises such as Mr Hogan [former president and CEO of Etihad], Mr Pearce [Man City director]… were false and that Mr Hogan if not Mr Pearce would be subject to criminal sanctions.’

It remains to be seen whether Guardiola’s achievements will be tinged by the 115 charges of financial breaches that the Premier League levelled at the club in February

The CAS didn’t have the evidence for that and the emails alone did not prove that City had inaccurately represented their accounts. But if the Premier League evidence goes deeper and their charges, which are spread over nine seasons and take in the start of the Guardiola era, are proven and also demonstrate that sponsors were funded by Sheik Mansour, they will effectively be saying many of those people did lie.

As such, it would be inconceivable that Al Mubarak, having presided over this, could stay on as chairman of the club. The Premier League Owners’ and Directors’ test, which rules out anyone who has provided ‘false misleading or inaccurate information’.

Jamie Carragher last week described City as a team on course to complete ‘the single greatest season by any English club’. So, better than Preston 1888-89, the original Invincibles; better than Arsenal’s Thirties team or their 2004 Invincibles; better than Billy Wright’s Wolves or Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool, the team he starred in as a player in the mid-Eighties and the team which he managed in the late Eighties. And better than Manchester United’s Treble winners of 1999.

If they achieve what we all expect them to this season, most will agree. The men in boots are sublime. The men in suits still have their day of reckoning to come.

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