City offers the most beautiful and the ugliest in top football

How will Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan have watched the top match of the club he owns, Manchester City, against Liverpool? Could he enjoy the spectacular 2-2 against the title rival on Sunday evening, at home? Or were his thoughts in the world of top lawyers, accusations, shady deals and illegal contracts? Because like no other club, his Manchester City represents the most beautiful – the level of play – and the ugliest – the business side – that top football has to offer.

The German weekly of the mirror showed last week how closely entwined Manchester City are with the Abu Dhabi regime and that this ‘cooperation’ leads to dubious financing and contracts. The weekly did this in collaboration with journalists’ collective European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), which also included NRC is part.

The basis of the new allegations is a leak from the so-called Football Leaks documents. It concerns numerous internal policies, employment contracts and e-mails, which NRC has seen in recent days. For years, City and Abu Dhabi have tried to deny that there were any direct links between the state and the football club. City would be a “personal investment” by Sheikh Mansour. This suited City well, as it removed a regime accused of serious human rights violations and which does not accept political opposition.

It turns out to be different. The documents show that the club has been directly funded by a government agency in Abu Dhabi. For example, City did not send invoices to sponsors, but to the Abu Dhabi government. The chairman of City, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, is said to have checked the money flows.

A fictitious equation for clarification: suppose Ajax would send an invoice for sponsorship money from KPN to the Ministry of Finance in Abu Dhabi. The Abu Dhabi official handling the invoice would then be praised by Ajax directors in internal emails for “facilitating the financial administration of Ajax”. This would also involve dubious payments.

It seems absurd, but it is exactly what the new documents show about Manchester City’s ties to Abu Dhabi. They also show that City, in violation of the rules, has pressured underage footballers to sign contracts. In addition, former coach Roberto Mancini is said to have received a large part of his salary in secret through fictitious consultancy contracts in Abu Dhabi.

Also read: this backstory about the possible takeover of NAC Breda by the City Group

The case is extra interesting for the Netherlands, because sheikh Mansour with his business empire (the City Group) is about to buy NAC Breda. For seven million euros, NAC would become part of a franchise that also includes Manchester City and clubs such as SK Lommel and New York City FC. There is a lot of resistance among Breda fans – they don’t want to become part of a company that has nothing to do with the club culture. Major shareholder Wim van Aalst recently tried to persuade the supporters and other shareholders. “City is all about football,” he wrote in a letter to smaller shareholders. And: „The ambition to be successful [zit] at City in the genes.”

The sponsoring sheik

It’s not the first time of the mirror publishes about abuses at City. In 2018 it turned out that Sheik Mansour himself paid additional sponsorship money for the club. It went like this: sponsor Etihad, for example, only had to pay 9.6 million euros of an amount that officially amounted to more than eighty million euros. The rest was probably adjusted internally by the sheik himself. It had to remain a secret, according to internal e-mails. This is not without reason: with this type of payment, Financial Fair Play rules are violated, which were created to keep clubs financially healthy. This type of financing is prohibited, because there must be a balance between income (from sponsorship money, for example) and expenses.

If sponsor Etihad pays less than ten million euros, City must put that in the books. Not the more than eighty million that it came to pay by paying Sheik Mansour. As a result, City was able to appear financially much healthier than it actually was and continue to buy top players. The European football association UEFA wants clubs to be financially healthy independently, and not completely dependent on one lender. By pumping revenue, City is breaking the rules. That may seem a bit businesslike, but it can have major consequences.

In February 2020, Manchester City was punished by UEFA for violating these rules. The club was fined thirty million euros and was not allowed to participate in the Champions League for two seasons. That was the most severe punishment possible. To the horror of UEFA, Manchester City subsequently won the appeal at the sports tribunal CAS and the club was still allowed to participate in the Champions League. There was “insufficient conclusive evidence” for the allegations, the CAS said. City denied being directly funded by Sheikh Mansour and keeping that secret in its accounts.

The new Football Leaks documents shed new light on the matter. There is in fact a list that shows that internally at Manchester City there is indeed talk about payments that are paid directly by sponsors and payments that come from Abu Dhabi. It is clear from the e-mail between Manchester City executives that they are aware that this must remain a secret. “We are not allowed to show the partner allowance if it goes outside the club,” warned City’s finance director in an internal email in early 2013. A key witness on City’s side in the CAS case won, board member Simon Pearce, was also aware of the direct payments from Abu Dhabi, as the emails show. He still denied this to CAS, possibly committing perjury.

In a response to Der Spiegel, an Etihad spokesperson said that the financial arrangements between the airline and the football club are “the sole liability and responsibility” of Etihad. The Premier League – which has been investigating City’s finances for years without success – has declined to comment to Der Spiegel, as have Manchester City itself and the sources in Abu Dhabi. City coach Pep Guardiola said before the game with Liverpool that he “didn’t want to talk for a second” about the matter.

It is not yet clear whether his club could run into trouble again due to the revelations. It is also unknown whether UEFA will re-investigate the case, and possible perjury in the CAS case. It was announced this week that UEFA will change the rules for Financial Fair Play. The reason is probably that it has never been possible to tackle violations by big clubs, such as City.

Anyway, the articles on Sunday put a gray veil on the most important game of the season in the Premier League. Although the public was not bothered by that. After a few minutes, people jumped over each other, in joy after Kevin De Bruyne’s goal. There was relief after ninety minutes, because City held it to a draw. It was pure football pleasure. The black border around the match was only visible in details. Such as the fact that the cameras regularly searched for Guardiola , who himself indirectly appeared in the documents that have surfaced.

The youth player and the ex-coach

Pep Guardiola’s brother, Pere Guardiola, has a brokerage firm. That office is, according to the documents, involved in the contracting of Spanish footballer Brahim Díaz. Not strange in itself – Guardiola was not yet a coach of City at that time. But: Díaz was only fourteen years old when he signed the contract. Pere Guardiola was asked to “report the player and his legal guardians” [ervan] to convince them to accept the contractual terms proposed by the club.” Should Díaz sign with City, according to the contracts, the Abu Dhabi United Group Investment & Development (Sheikh Mansour’s company) would pay a sum of 830,000 pounds (almost 995 thousand euros) to Pere Guardiola’s company.

It is unclear why Sheikh Mansour signed the consultancy contract with Pere Guardiola to bring in Diaz. Incidentally, it is prohibited in England: only the club itself is allowed to pay for consultants. Díaz did indeed sign a contract with Manchester City, but mainly played in the youth there. In 2019 he left for Real Madrid, which later loaned him to AC Milan.

It certainly wasn’t the only shady contract signed in Manchester. Italian Roberto Mancini was appointed in 2009 to achieve success with the petrodollars Sheik Mansour had pumped into the club a year earlier. Officially, Mancini earned 1.4 million pounds (1.69 million euros) with four million pounds (4.8 million euros) extra in possible income from successes. Spacious, but apparently not spacious enough. There was another contract, signed on the same day. Mancini became an “advisor” to Al Jazira from the United Arab Emirates – also a club of Sheikh Mansour. Mancini received another 1.7 million pounds (more than 2 million euros) for this, an amount that was paid to the current national coach of Italy via an Italian company and tax haven Mauritius.

It has also worked, the limitlessness. Sheik Mansour has invested at least 1.6 billion euros in the club until 2018 (those figures became known during the previous leak). In 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2019 the club became champion of England. Another championship is very possible after Liverpool’s attack – which remains in pursuit – is very possible.