It was around the same time as a generically pictured statement appeared on the Premier League website that legal papers were served to Manchester City executives. There was initial shock, which soon rippled around English football, as news spread. It was so abrupt that City chief executive Ferran Soriano was still on the phone to the Premier League as the statement went out. There hadn’t even been an email as regards notification – and this for a story that could yet lead to relegation or more.
The statement was nevertheless quickly shared with far more excitable exclamations. Senior figures in football were describing it as “the biggest scandal the Premier League has faced”, “the nuclear button” and “going to war with their serial champions”. It certainly isn’t being seen as a case that will be just eased out and go nowhere. The Premier League’s published list of more than 100 alleged breaches should be sufficient indication of that, especially when they could have just fined City for non-cooperation.
Executives around the game were genuinely stunned at the extent of it. It is the product of four years of investigation, which the Premier League had taken a lot of criticism for – not least from Lord Justice Males who said in a July 2021 High Court ruling over whether arbitration could be kept secret that it was “a matter of legitimate public concern”. This was why it took so long.
Unlike the Uefa case that ended with City’s two-year ban from the Champions League being overturned, due to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) stating that “most of the alleged breaches were either not established or time-barred”, there are no similar restrictions with this. Similarly, Premier League rules mean the club will not be able to appeal to the same Swiss body.
All of that makes this a genuine juncture in football history, of the sort that has been accumulating of late because of the geopolitical size of the game, and the interest of states like Abu Dhabi. The investigation focused on two main areas inherently connected to that, which were sponsorship deals where the money is alleged to have come from the club’s owners, and how the salary of former manager Roberto Mancini was effectively doubled through a secret contract.
Much of the story stems from the Football Leaks cache of documents published by Der Spiegel and initially obtained by Portuguese hacker Rui Pinto, who should go down as one of the most influential figures in football history. All of this comes amid a deeply volatile period for the game, where the Qatar World Cup only further showcased how it is effectively being taken over and dominated by states on either side of the Gulf blockade for political motivations.
It has driven large parts of the game, including many Premier League clubs, to increase the pressure on the authorities to start properly regulating football. Connected figures feel the CAS verdict on the Uefa case fed into the decisions of both the owners of Liverpool and Manchester United to seek to sell at the same time. Many clubs have been insistent this investigation needs to be satisfactorily dealt with, and City manager Pep Guardiola pointedly referred to pressure applied around the Uefa case as recently as Friday’s press conference.
“We were accused,” he said, when asked about Chelsea’s spending. “I don’t forget, eight or nine teams in the Premier League send a letter to the Premier League to be banned. That happened to us.”
A lot more is happening around the game. This statement comes two days before the date the UK government was supposed to publish a white paper on football – now delayed to later in February – with so much of that driven by the frequently repeated argument that “football can’t govern itself”.
This development is a rebuttal to that claim, or at least a challenge for the Premier League to show they can prove this and properly punish City. That in itself would be an argument against an independent regulator. City themselves feel the timing is “tactical” in that way. It reflects how there are almost as many forces and potential consequences swirling around this as there were alleged breaches.
As to what next, the case will go to an independent commission selected by Murray Rosen - the chair of the Premier League’s judiciary panel - after the competition changed their process in early 2020. The complicated nature of this will likely mean it is a three-person panel, with at least one of those a financial expert, but likely more. There is no timeframe on that, and City will naturally fight this as hard as they did the Uefa case, with the club expected to “fight every procedural point”. Once the commission has completed their judgement, either party can appeal that, so it would be examined again by a different panel - but it would not go to an external body like CAS.
City are now preparing their defence, but the shock at Monday’s developments was illustrated by the fact it took the club more than two hours to release a statement. That eventually said they were “surprised by the issuing of these alleged breaches” given “the extensive engagement and vast amount of detailed materials” the Premier League was provided with.
In 2021, however, an arbitration panel ordered City to provide “certain documents and information to the Premier League and to make inquiries of third parties”, after the club lost a challenge over whether the panel had the jurisdiction to hear the case. A Premier League submission to the Commercial Court said: “For the Premier League it was submitted that the tactic that the club has adopted has been to make as many procedural applications and complaints as it possibly can to slow the day when it will actually have to provide the information.”
If the alleged breaches are proven, it could cause chaos for the game and could get even more political. The potential sanctions available as per rule W51 in the Premier League rules are suspension, a points deduction and even expulsion, although the commission can recommend any punishment it sees fit.
Titles being stripped is nevertheless seen as unlikely due to an unwillingness to “look backwards” but senior football people are seriously talking among themselves about the possibility of relegation at the end of this. It would also be a message to the rest of the competition. So much of it concerns the very future of the Premier League as a “product” as much as City, especially given how the club have dominated it.
Nothing erodes the legitimacy of a sporting competition like titles being stripped, and that prospect could come at a point when the Premier League is in an unprecedented position of power in sport, when virtually everyone is concerned with keeping that going. On the other side, however, it would also erode legitimacy if the competition can’t follow through on its own four-year investigation with proof and sufficient punishment.
“If this is proven, the breaches are so serious that there simply has to be an extremely strong deterrent,” one source said. That’s the scale people are talking about, as City are alleged to have committed the greatest offences in the history of the Premier League.
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