In the five days since the Premier League charged Manchester City with more than 100 breaches of their rules, much of the debate has swirled around one contentious issue, which is Financial Fair Play (FFP).
This is a sideshow and, in the words of many figures familiar with the process, “irrelevant” – other than the fact the club are accused of trying to get around the regulations.
This case is about the far more serious allegations of fraud, dishonesty and a failure to accurately disclose information.
These are the words of many sources and lawyers looking at the case. This is the word used by Uefa’s former chief investigator Yves Leterme, who this week told the Beglian broadcaster Sporza he is “convinced fraud has been committed by Manchester City”.
This, most importantly of all, is what comes from the Premier League rules and their statement. City are accused of breaching rules that require “provision by a member club to the Premier League, in the utmost good faith, of accurate financial information that gives a true and fair view of the club’s financial position, in particular with respect to its revenue (including sponsorship revenue), its related parties and its operating costs”. On the next level to that, club directors have to sign a certificate declaring the information in the accounts are complete and accurate.
It is for this reason that the case is being described as “all or nothing” and that the possible punishments being discussed are so severe. It is why Uefa initially pushed the “nuclear button” and gave the club a two-year ban from the Champions League only for that to be overturned in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
It is also why it is a story of such scale. That’s in terms of the charges, the seriousness, the timespans involved, the potential consequences and even the debates this case traverses. It almost serves as a distillation of so many of the issues defining and dividing football in 2023.
There is how the sport governs itself, state ownership, income in the game and the very position of the Premier League.
A lot of this may rest on what the independent commission decides on two core sponsorship deals, much of which can be read in the first 13 pages of the report from the CAS. It’s a mirror image of the Uefa case in that the Premier League have similarly charged City with submitting false information to licensing.
The Independent has even been told that the lawyers for the club on the Uefa case were initially “taken aback” because they expected it to be about FFP.
In the first example, Etisalat – an Emirati telecommunications company – had a deal with the club from 2012 onwards. On City’s own admission, however, the club’s owner – Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi ruling family – did arrange payments understood to total £30m on behalf of Etisalat through his company Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG) for sponsorship in 2012 and 2013. The telecoms company didn’t actually pay anything until 2015. City hadn’t even concluded a contract with Etilasat until that year but one had been agreed in principle. The payments were nevertheless recorded in City’s financial statements – as provided to the English FA for Uefa’s Financial Fair Play process – as sponsorship.
From this, the members of Uefa’s Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) adjudicatory chamber (AC) considered the two payments to be straightforward funding by the club’s owner. The chamber found that the club’s financial statements had “overstated MCFC’s true sponsorship revenue”.
City’s defence against this was that Etisalat had reimbursed ADUG the £30m in 2015, and that these payments were properly accounted for because they were credited against invoices to the telecoms company.
The chamber rejected that argument but City put it forward again at CAS. It was there decided by 2-1 on the CAS panel that this issue would not be considered because the alleged breach was time-barred. That was despite the 2012 and 2013 accounts being submitted in 2014 as part of the three-year period for FFP consideration, which would have fallen inside the five-year period allowed by the CFCB investigatory chamber in May 2019. The CAS panel nevertheless ruled that the relevant dates were when the payments were made so this was timed out.
That is considered a “farcical decision” by some involved sources, who also ask what sort of sponsor contract works where an owner pays on behalf of their commercial partner.
“This is not sponsorship,” one figure familiar with the process says. “This is disguised equity and should have gone in as equity.”
The second example concerns the allegation that ADUG also funded the sponsorship from Etihad. That charge came from information found in the City emails published by Der Spiegel in November 2018, where the club’s then financial officers set out that the Abu Dhabi airline was paying only £8m of sponsorships worth £35, £65m and £67.5m from the 2012-13, 2013-14 and 2015-16 seasons, respectively, with the rest coming from ADUG.
The CFCB proceedings only had emails in this case, not accounting information, but found that evidence credible because Etihad had made two separate payments for the 2015-16 sponsorship worth £67.5m that tallied with the amounts set out in the email. City refused to disclose further emails or allow key individuals to give evidence, representing a failure to cooperate, which entitled the chamber to infer the same patterns of behaviour as with Etisalat.
Since the Etilasat evidence was time-barred, however, the CAS panel ruled that inference could not be drawn from that example. It meant the AC only could only draw from the emails, which was not sufficient to find them guilty.
That finding was complicated two weeks after the CAS verdict, when Der Spiegel published new “leaked” emails which set out that City director Simon Pearce – also a senior executive in the Abu Dhabi government – was “forwarding” Etihad £91m of £99m that the airline owed the club for its sponsorship, with Etihad providing only £8m.
City did not comment on the substance of the emails at the time, only re-iterating their persistent view since November 2018 that the emails published by Der Spiegel were “criminally obtained”. The source, Portuguese hacker Rui Pinto, denies this.
Some figures within Uefa remain furious that the European governing body did not appeal the CAS decision, especially when they were strongly advised to do so by one of the lawyers representing them.
The independent commission will now have access to those, while the Etisalat example will not be time-barred.
City’s expensive legal team will naturally defend the club with the same vigour as the Uefa case, although observers see a decisive point as to whether the Etisalat payments are satisfactorily explained.
These are not the only differences with the Premier League case.
Uefa only started investigating in January 2019, shortly after Der Spiegel’s leaks, and were aware that the potential statute of limitations meant they had to get the complaint in by May 2019. That is where the Premier League are now, but after four years of investigation as opposed to four months.
It is still expected that the process will go on for longer than two years because this is about so much more than Financial Fair Play.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies