Has a team just two points clear at the top of the table ever looked so dominant as Manchester City do now? Their performance in defeating Southampton 6-1 took the “wow” factor of Pep Guardiola’s side into uncharted territory in the Premier League. Never mind the goals, feel the quality of that sequence where City had the ball in Southampton’s 18-yard box for what felt like over a minute.
On Wednesday, City welcome Shakhtar Donetsk to the Etihad Stadium in the Champions League, a competition that might just be opening up for them, with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Barcelona all looking weaker this season than for some time. This could, and probably should, be City’s year.
And yet. As Der Spiegel, the respected German magazine, forensically picks through the financial machinations that got City to where they are today, the club is under a severe, darkening cloud. The allegation is that, to meet UEFA Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, the club’s owner, Sheikh Mansour was pepping up sponsorship deals with his own money.
The sporting adage that if something looks too good to be true then it probably is, comes readily to mind. The club’s financial results have long raised eyebrows. Manchester United are the world leaders in making revenue, and pulled in £581m during the 2016-17 season, having sweated the asset for a beguiling series of worldwide endorsements and partnerships. In commercial terms, that pulled in £276m, whereas City pulled in £218m of a total of £473m.
This is Manchester City, the club that has achingly visible problems selling out Champions League matches, and who editors of football websites will tell you do not attract anything like the clicks a United, Liverpool, Chelsea or Arsenal story might.
Should the highly-detailed Der Spiegel accounts, acquired through the “Football Leaks” operative known only as “John” be true, then the artifice of the Abu Dhabi project in eastern Manchester will have been exposed.
There is a significant and compelling argument to be made that FFP was a self-interested project backed by European football’s traditional powers that pulled up the drawbridge. The suggestion is that City claimed to be playing by its rules, while carrying on regardless.
City’s executives, beyond an initial flat denial, have been quiet, as fans, blinded by the success money has brought their club after so many years of famine and farce, fight the rearguard action themselves. Some of the accusations are wild, including the suggestion that UEFA’s fining City and the Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain in 2014 was some form of Islamophobia.
Manchester United’s huge debts, which barely hardly gone down despite such huge revenue, have also been pinpointed, and rightly so.
The Glazer family’s activities, while perfectly legal, are not much more edifying.
That 2014 punishment led the UEFA anthem to be booed by City fans ahead of each European fixture the club has played in. Fans of the “Cityzens” feel they are warriors of the light against European football’s elite, and that their club’s development has been stymied by an establishment jealous of new-found wealth and unable to reach for the same level of funding.
It is a standpoint that ignores the alleged collusion that took place between City and UEFA, where then-general secretary and now-FIFA president Gianni Infantino struck a sweetheart deal. Both City and PSG got off lighter than might have been expected under FFP rules, as neither were suspended, the sanction a few clubs have suffered for financial irregularities.
Meanwhile, as the likes of Bayern Munich have expressed distaste for City’s financial windfalls, they have been happy to welcome the arrivistes into discussions of a European Super League that many of them see as the next step in financial growth. The pull of money always allows noses to be held, if even more filthy lucre is going to be trousered.
The Super League and suspicions over Manchester City are hardly new concerns, but having them documented so baldly only adds to that sinking sense the game is lost forever to brutal commercialism. Romance might have been sold many years ago, but the cynicism behind City’s success renders an emptiness to their beautiful football.