Manchester City were the ultra-rich “noisy neighbours” who became the Premier League’s dominant force. But they now face an uncertain future that includes the ultimate threat of relegation.
Abu Dhabi-backed City were charged by the English top flight on Monday with more than 100 alleged breaches of financial rules between 2009/10 and 2017/18, and referred to an independent commission.
The reigning champions have also been accused of failing to cooperate with investigations by the Premier League.
The club faces a range of possible punishments, including a reprimand, points deduction or even expulsion from the Premier League.
City, who last month topped the Deloitte money league of the world’s richest clubs, appear to be confident they can ride out the storm, insisting there is “irrefutable” evidence that supports their case.
It is not the first time the club, transformed on and off the pitch after their takeover by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, have been in the spotlight over issues of finance.
City were fined 60 million euros ($64 million) in 2014 for breaching UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations.
The club were banned for two years from UEFA competitions in February 2020 by European football’s governing body for “serious financial fair play breaches”, but the sanction was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport later that year.
Last year City manager Pep Guardiola made it clear that he would walk away from the club if he discovered he had been lied to by the club’s owners — a worst-case scenario for City, who have won four of the past five Premier League titles under his leadership.
The Times’ chief football writer Henry Winter said City faced “allegations of wrongdoing on an industrial scale…If proved, the ensuing punishment should be designed to deter others who believe they can copy the City playbook.”
But Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at the SKEMA Business school in Paris, said wider issues were at play.
He pointed out that the British government will shortly publish a white paper — a consultation document, which could form the basis of legislation — which is expected to support the creation of an independent regulator for football.
“The Premier League is stuck between a rock and a hard place because it feels pressed by the government to take a more robust approach to finance and governance but it will also be acutely aware that the government is essentially getting it to do its dirty work for it,” said Chadwick.
Football finance expert Kieran Maguire also highlighted the political context of the government’s drive to shake up football administration.
“The Premier League is opposed to an independent regulator in football and I don’t want to go down a huge conspiracy route, but the Premier League wants to prove to all interested parties that it’s capable of keeping its house in order,” he told the BBC.
Neither Maguire nor Chadwick believe City face a realistic prospect of relegation, with Chadwick saying a compromise was the most likely outcome of what could be a lengthy process.
“If British competitive advantage in football is not to be undermined, you can’t have a signal being sent to Abu Dhabi, to the United States, to Saudi Arabia, to others that Britain is going to enforce draconian rules on overseas investors,” he said.
So are there broader implications for clubs that are effectively backed by states such as City and Paris Saint-Germain, who are Qatari-owned?
“This is a battle of our era, which is a domestic governing body trying to enforce rules on transnational organisations that operate across international boundaries, often with the support or help of state governments,” said Chadwick, who emphasised the importance of foreign cash in the English game.
“The British government and the Premier League cannot afford to disaffect, antagonise, push away potential foreign investment especially post-Brexit, during this very difficult economic period.”
He believes the eventual outcome to the Manchester City case will be one that “shows capitulation on the part of the Premier League and the British government”.
“But the way in which it is eventually spun will be that the government and the Premier League have protected their asset and upheld certain principles of good governance,” Chadwick added.
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