My, my, what a week it’s been. Manchester City have scored 11 goals this week, but if you were to take a look at Twitter during that time you’d be forgiven for thinking that nothing has happened besides City single-handedly destroying football and Raheem Sterling proving that The Sun was right all along. Just another normal week for the blues, then.
Last Friday, Der Spiegel announced a brand-new set of documents from Football Leaks, which they would chronicle in the build-up to an inevitable second book. This time the leaks were regarding UEFA, Financial Fair Play and, most importantly, both Manchester City and PSG.
The initial headline, the big gun they led with, regarded the extent to which Manchester City and PSG had failed FFP. Everybody knew that the club had breached the rules back in 2014, though the extent of this was kept quiet up until this point. Honestly, the leaks were pretty interesting and peek into the behind-the-scenes world of the negotiations didn’t disappoint. The information being presented, however, was nothing revolutionary.
Other than the numbers involved (PSG had, in fact, failed FFP by accruing debt of around €218 and City had done the same by around €188) the information was a lot of what we already knew. City failed FFP, PSG failed FFP and they were punished. Their failure to adhere to the rules was not a great secret the footballing world had covered up, it was quite publicly known. However, it was not known that UEFA were well aware of the extent of the failure and agreed a settlement with the two clubs. Threats of legal action from Manchester City saw UEFA agree a small fine, a transfer restriction and a Champions League squad registration restriction.
Of course, if your only exposure to the story was the media reaction to the breaking news then you’d be forgiven for thinking that the very fabric of the game had been destroyed but rest assured, this is far from the case. PSG and City broke the rules, they were punished, UEFA can be perceived in some quarters to be corrupt. What’s new?
I wrote an article in an attempt to defend City in the aftermath of the outrage, yet before Der Spiegel unleashed their four-chapter series on City’s systematic destruction of football (apparently PSG haven’t done anything else worth going into further detail on, it’s just City). That series has now come to an end, so let’s dig into just what exactly they’ve found…
CHAPTER 1: SHEIKH MANSOUR PUTS HIS OWN MONEY INTO A BUSINESS HE OWNS
So, spoiler alert, this is probably the most interesting chapter and certainly the one which is probably going to have the most repercussions for the club.
The writer sets his stall out very early on by, within four paragraphs, dropping the following lines:
“Since its purchase by the sheikh of Abu Dhabi, Manchester City has managed to cheat its way into the top echelon of European football and create a global, immensely profitable football empire, ignoring rules along the way. The club’s newfound glory is rooted in lies.”
This is clearly the writings of somebody who doesn’t like City very much and, regardless of whatever information is about to follow, it’s obviously not being written in a very objective manner. This is a running theme that we’ll discover later on.
So, the chapter itself begins by setting the scene with that Aguero goal and, for a brief moment, I almost thought I was going to enjoy it before I was brought back to reality.
Again, the language of the paragraph is clearly quite negative from the get-go. It talks of pulverizing transfer records, yet the closest we’ve ever come to breaking a transfer record is once breaking the transfer record for a centre-back and also a goalkeeper, neither of which came close to inflating the overall market (records, it’s worth noting, we no longer hold, by quite a distance). It’s the final sentence which provides the real meat, however – the sponsorship deals and just how valid they actually are.
The most damning paragraph comes quite some way down the article after a load of useless fluff providing nothing but more narrative constructed in an attempt to paint Manchester City as the big bad wolf of the footballing world. This paragraph, however, provides some legitimate concerns. Manchester City’s sponsorship deals have seemingly been bank-rolled by Sheikh Mansour himself, with the Aabar deal being clearly indicated having 80% of the total valuation being pumped into the club by the City owner.
For years, I’ve defended the club from the idea that Mansour is just buying sponsorships from his Abu Dhabi mates. We’re a big club now, our sponsorships aren’t out of whack with what other clubs are getting at the top level, a level which we’re definitely at in terms of brand exposure. However, if this is true (and, realistically, I have no qualms about the legitimacy of the leaks, I don’t think there’s anything fake about them) then I’ve not really got any defence for the club on this one. I’ve no idea of the extent to which this is currently taking place, if at all, but I really hope it’s stopped. When these leaks prove that the very thing I argued against and defended the club from are actually true, it makes me feel like a bit of a mug. With that said, do I believe City are the only clubs doing it? Absolutely not.
All in all? A fairly juicy opening to the series. These are the allegations that worry me the most as, as the article quite rightly points out, UEFA fined Manchester City for inflating sponsorship deals that were deemed not to be “fair market value” yet it’s unknown as to what extent UEFA were aware of Mansour’s backdoor injections. The Etihad deal, for example, is alleged to have been valued at £67.5 million, with Etihad themselves only covering £8 million and Sheikh Mansour covering the rest of the bill. A financial expert may be able to tell me otherwise, but I doubt that deal has reduced in value in the last few years and I highly doubt Etihad have suddenly decided to pay the full amount off their own backs in that time and take their contribution from a mere £8 million to £65+ million. I’ve no idea of the legalities of it all but this will certainly give UEFA cause to open an investigation.
I’ll admit, after reading this one on Monday night, I was worried about just how foolish the next chapter could make my previous article’s attempts to defend the club look. Football Leaks had clearly got a hold of some damning email evidence and it could only get worse. Right?
CHAPTER 2: PROJECT ‘MANCHESTER CITY FAST-TRACKED INVESTMENT TO BEAT FINANCIAL FAIR PLAY’
‘Project Longbow’. It sounds like the grand plan of a Bond villain and I’m sure that the Der Spiegel writers were rubbing their hands together when they had the perfect project name for the dastardly plans of Manchester City.
The nature of the plans? To do everything possible to try to contest Financial Fair Play, a ruling the club deemed, not exactly incorrectly, to be nothing more than a huge financial barrier to protect those who are already at the head table of Europe’s elite, ensuring that nobody else could buy their way in. Of course, when speaking to each other internally about this, the club isn’t going to put “Let’s Avoid Financial Fair Play” in the subject of every email chain, so a project name was formed. The name “Project Longbow” stemmed from the weaponry that the English used to defeat the French at Crery and Agincourt, in reference to the fact that the English club was going to war with the French (Michel Platini), which, come on, is pretty funny.
The article then goes on to show documents which allege that Manchester City have a third-party company set up, which purchases players’ image rights. Abu Dhabi United Group (owned by Sheikh Mansour) owns this company and effectively pays for everything, including players’ image rights and media appearances. It’s effectively an elaborate, but not technically illegal, method of paying players’ wages and image rights. Immoral? Well, in world where Manchester United are registered in the Cayman Islands, not really. Illegal? Absolutely not. A loophole exploited? Absolutely.
Of course, the second chapter was littered with various digs at the club which aren’t exactly the hallmark of impartial journalism. One of the article’s opening lines is, “For years, the team’s fans, otherwise a rather quiet lot, have passionately booed their hearts out when the Champions League hymn is played.” I sincerely hope the word “hymn” is just a poor translation, however Der Spiegel implies that this animosity towards UEFA is purely based around the fact that City were found guilty of FFP, completely ignoring the years City fans spent booing the anthem prior to the punishment.
When speaking of the club’s knowledge in 2010 that FFP would become a thing from 2013 onwards the article writes, “One potential response to the FFP rules would have been quite simple: City could have established new sources of revenue that were not linked to the sheikh, cut costs and lowered the expectations many had for the football project.” The implication here is that Manchester City should have somehow just, despite relying heavily on the accelerated investment from Sheikh Mansour between 2008 and 2010, downed tools and attempted to pay the wages of Yaya Touré and David Silva off the back of organic revenue despite never having finished in the top four.
But who could dislike Manchester City so much to push this agenda? Some had their suspicions but the following chapter was about to provide a few clues…
CHAPTER 3: BAYERN MUNICH LOSE PEP GUARDIOLA TO MANCHESTER CITY
This chapter contains the most laughable opening paragraph of the four as it rather unsubtly attempts to question the reasoning behind Pep Guardiola’s change in body language between the touchline of a football game, during which the stakes are high and his job is to ensure that the players stick to a plan he is putting into action, and a quiet, private meeting with literal royalty. The implication, as we learn later on when Mansour’s singular visit to The Etihad contains the phrase, “the underlings next to him in the VIP box looked on, the tension clearly visible on their faces. Even Mubarak seemed nervous”, is that Pep fears Mansour, as do all who surround the Sheikh.
The article then goes on to get deep into the political ties between the UAE and Yemen, an argument we’ve all heard before. I’m not suggesting that there’s no legitimacy to disagreeing with the political situation going on in the Middle-East, I’m simply suggesting that the cross-section of people who point out the Manchester City connection and the number of people who are actively involved in any sort of human rights activism are almost nil. Plenty of people are happy to point the finger at Manchester City and the UAE’s various breaches of human rights before watching their Fly Emirates sponsored teams play on their Made in China TVs. It’s one huge glass house that the whole world is sitting in but it doesn’t stop people from trying to find the biggest brick to throw at one other when it suits them.
After revealing that Pep Guardiola actually signed his contract with Manchester City in October 2015, only two months into his final season at Bayern Munich, the article goes on to reveal a major scoop.
A football club used its media influence to bury a story it didn’t like. You can imagine my disbelief upon hearing the news that a club’s PR department would use relations with certain journalists to push a certain agenda. Imagine if football clubs, managers or players would use people like, say, Duncan Castles, to push a certain agenda to suit their needs.
Of course, this is written as if it’s some kind of nefarious underworld dealing and just another indication of the Abu Dhabi ownership’s desire for to have complete and utter control, when in reality it’s possibly the most basic and commonplace practice in the footballing world for clubs to use the media to spread stories to fit their needs. Der Spiegel is, once again, showing itself to be either incredibly out of touch, ill-researched or just desperate to fling whatever it can at the club to fit a pre-determined narrative.
It’s the following paragraph, however, that Der Spiegel’s desire to affirm its own narrative reaches fever-pitch.
The idea that, despite my previous implication that there is an innate hypocrisy in anybody who takes interest in a sport where Nike’s influence is absolutely everywhere deciding that Manchester City is where they draw the ethical line, “many in the UK […] have nothing but good things to say about UAE officials” is absolute bollocks. The number of people who have good things to say about UAE officials probably extends as far as Manchester City fans, who really only have good things to say about Mansour and Khaldoon respectively rather than the entire regime, and people who have done very well out of business dealings with them. A section of the population which I don’t think anybody would even begin to define as “some”, let alone “many”.
However, the article has already decided that the Emirati have used Manchester City to immediately become a beloved nation in the eyes of the general public within the UK and therefore, regardless of the reality, this must be what has actually happened.
This was a very weak chapter in the Der Spiegel saga, amounting to little more than going over old political ground and the ground-breaking idea that football clubs use journalists to their advantage. I’d half expected that they’d saved the best for last and that chapter four would be the biggest of the lot.
CHAPTER 4: BAYERN MUNICH LOSE KEVIN DE BRUYNE AND LEROY SANÉ TO MANCHESTER CITY
Manchester City wanted to sign Kevin De Bruyne. Manchester City signed Kevin De Bruyne. Onto the next paragraph.
“Bayern Munich, Germany’s wealthiest team, was apparently unable to make a better offer to De Bruyne, nor were they able to secure the services of German national team player Leroy Sané.”
With regards to idea that Leroy Sané was told that, should be fail to earn €28 million (just under £24 million at the time) in three years, he would be paid the difference in a lump sum, this is actually the one thing I’d like to see the evidence for as there’s absolutely nothing cited, just an off-handed claim. It sounds suspiciously like the work of a German club trying to save face after failing to lure yet another top German talent away from other teams in the league, sapping the league of any sense of competitiveness. Then again, only the evil, nasty Abu Dhabi people would ever dream of using media to push their narrative, so that can’t be the case.
As for the idea that “Germany’s top league doesn’t stand a chance”, cry me a f***ing river. Poor Bayern Munich. How could they ever hope to match City’s offer for De Bruyne, with their regular semi-final Champions League revenue at the time and their £360 million revenue, compared to City’s £352 million? Maybe they’d run out after spending £33.75 million on Arturo Vidal, £27 million on Douglas Costa, £7.65 million on Joshua Kimmich, £6.3 million on a loan for Kingsley Coman and £3 million on Sven Ulreich in that same summer. Maybe after that meagre £80 million spend, the German club simply didn’t have enough to possibly compete with City.
Der Spiegel is right – Germany’s top league doesn’t stand a chance and it’s the very fact that Bayern Munich tried to rob Wolfsburg of the player whose departure, this very chapter seems to imply, signalled the end of Wolfsburg’s hopes of being competitive. It’s the fact that Bayern Munich tried to sign Leroy Sané, robbing yet another German club of their brightest home-grown talents to ensure their guaranteed dominance. The free transfers of Niklas Süle and Leon Goretzka to Bayern Munich are the true signs that German football is doomed, not Manchester City.
Again, more sympathy for Bayern Munich. The reason why Bayern receives so little money from their league is because nobody outside of Germany is willing to pay big money for the TV rights, as one club has turned the league into nothing more than a joke. Guardiola’s dominance was something to be marvelled at but the fact that Bayern started the league campaign as poorly as they did last season, sacked Ancelotti and dragged Jupp Heynckes out of retirement, and still had the league wrapped up with games to spare, says everything about how interesting people think the league is. German football is suffocating under the weight of Bayern Munich, yet this article laments Bayern’s lack of resources compared to those of their English counterparts. The agenda is becoming more apparent.
There’s a rather interesting bit about Roberto Mancini’s wages and just how they were subsidised, allegedly by another club owned by Mansour in the UAE through other means. It certainly exploits a loophole but it’s not illegal, which has been a running theme throughout much of the revelations. Der Spiegel is not uncovering outright corruption, just exploitation of various loopholes to get around a rule they believed should never have been in place to begin with. The outrage is a moral one, not a legal one.
After a lot of bluster about CFG and their ownership of multiple clubs across the world as well as partnerships with other clubs, most notably Girona, Der Spiegel finally concedes that the Mansour model has actually worked and that the club is now profitable. The club is now set going forward and (Mansour’s potential sponsorship involvement aside), the club could switch owner at any time and still continue to function as it is now.
Chapter 4 is by far the weakest and, in part, serves as nothing more than an embittered Bayern-centric attack on the club. Excuses are made on behalf of the German giants who were one of the biggest pushers for FFP and will have been devastated to not only see City rise to prominence regardless but to also have them take the greatest manager in the world from under their noses. In April 2015, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge said, “I can’t imagine that Pep Guardiola will join a club like Manchester City.” Within six months, Pep had signed his contract with the blues.
However, for a club which has such an axe to grind with City’s rise to prominence, Bayern have questions of their own to answer. Adidas have long-sponsored Germany’s poster-child in club football and, in 2001, moved into co-ownership with the club. Their stake in the club is reported to be around 9%, does it not seem slightly conflicting that almost 20% of the club’s non-fan-owned ownership is also one of their major sponsors? No, for some reason this is only bad when it’s Etihad and other Abu Dhabi based companies. If Bayern’s revenue were to show signs of flagging, what’s to stop Adidas from suddenly inflating their own kit deal as a means to pump extra revenue into the club? How does this differ from what Mansour has done?
For the record, I’m not implying that Bayern Munich are responsible for the leaks, nor am I implying that they’re responsible for the Der Spiegel articles themselves, but Der Spiegel are certainly rooting for Bayern Munich throughout Chapters 3 and 4. For example, Guardiola is the headline of Chapter 3, as Kevin De Bruyne’s image is of Chapter 4, yet the two barely feature in the respective articles. These two particular parts seem an unnecessary smear in defence of the German club. Maybe I’m jaded by the British media, maybe this is just the norm for German media to defend their native clubs.
On the whole? Der Spiegel certainly has some interesting finds. They could probably have all been detailed in the space of one long article, maybe two, but they certainly didn’t deserve a four-part series.
Will there be consequences for City? Honestly, it’s hard to tell. The biggest headlines are mostly just going over old ground. City failed FFP, UEFA knew how badly they failed it, they just bottled it when it came to punishing the club and, when the blues threatened legal action, UEFA didn’t fancy having their own ruling publicly challenged and setting a precedent and so went for the settlement. That’s done. That can’t be undone.
As for the shady sponsorship involvement? UEFA will certainly have to be seen to do something just to save face. How much of it UEFA already knew and just how much of a legal challenge UEFA can put up given how the documents revealing this information have been acquired (which is definitely illegally), we just don’t know. But it certainly won’t be the last we’ll hear of it.