Uefa investigation was greeted with scorn and denial by the club, but has culminated in a guilty verdict.
Throughout the startling “leaks” of Manchester City’s internal emails in the German magazine Der Spiegel, and the resulting investigation by Uefa which led ultimately to Friday’s guilty finding and two-season Champions League ban and €30m (£25m) fine, City’s response has been uniform: scorn, outrage, denial.
The emails, splashed by Spiegel with evident relish across a series of exposés, punched into City’s expertly and expensively created modern image in three broad areas relating to Uefa’s financial fair play rules, which were introduced in 2011 to deter clubs from overspending.
First, and most damaging, were emails and accounting documents which appeared to show that City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour, of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, was mostly funding the huge, £67.5m annual sponsorship of the club’s shirt, stadium and academy by his country’s airline, Etihad. That created a perception that the Abu Dhabi hierarchy, in their drive to mega-spend on City attaining elite status while somehow complying with FFP rules, had deceived Uefa in their financial submissions. This serious trouble for City sprang from a tiny number of emails, a fraction of the documentary dump provided to Spiegel by its source, Rui Pinto, a Portuguese national now charged in his home country with 147 criminal offences including computer hacking, all of which he denies.
FFP rules limit the amount of money owners can put in to bankroll losses, encouraging top-division European clubs not to overspend on players’ wages and transfer fees and risk falling into financial crisis, and to spend within their revenues. Mansour started financing mega-losses on player signings and wages after his 2008 takeover and City had scrambled, particularly following the introduction of FFP in 2011, to turbo-boost their revenues with large sponsorships from Abu Dhabi companies.
One of the emails, from City’s then chief financial officer, Jorge Chumillas, headed “Cashflow”, stated that Mansour’s own company vehicle, the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), would be paying £57m as a “contribution to 13/14 sponsorship fee”, while only £8m was Etihad’s “direct contribution”. Then Chumillas sent invoices for Etihad, internally to the City executives Ferran Soriano and Simon Pearce, stating that for 2015-16, the Etihad sponsorship was £67.5m, of which “£8m should be funded directly by Etihad and £59.5 [sic] by ADUG”.
Following the Spiegel coverage, Uefa’s club financial control body (CFCB) investigatory chamber (IC) finally announced last March that it was launching an investigation, and City responded by saying they would comfortably prove that the accusations were “entirely false”. The IC, a panel of grandees chaired by Yves Leterme, a former Belgian prime minister, was clearly not convinced, however, after its inquiry which involved two days of hearings, and it charged the club in May. City responded with scorn, accusing the IC of ignoring “a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence”, said the decision was the result of “mistakes, misinterpretations and confusions fundamentally borne out of a basic lack of due process”, and in effect accused the IC of being biased, running “a wholly unsatisfactory, curtailed, and hostile process”.
City expressed huge outrage that the IC’s pending decision to charge was leaked two days early – which was indeed embarrassing to Uefa – although the truth is that throughout the process, very little detail has leaked. The fact that the IC did charge City, though, made it self-evident that the hierarchy’s explanations, and whatever documentation they did provide, did not satisfy the IC that questions raised by the club’s own internal communications had been irrefutably answered.
The IC can reasonably have expected City to produce, for example, the internal replies to Chumillas’s stunning emails, which perhaps would show he had been corrected, or that in context it could be shown that it was simply, “irrefutably”, not the case that ADUG was funding the Etihad sponsorship. Instead, the IC clearly decided that the allegations had not been refuted, and sent them for determination by Uefa’s CFCB adjudicatory chamber, which is chaired by José Narciso da Cunha Rodrigues, a former general prosecutor in Portugal and judge at the European Court of Justice, and includes a leading British barrister, Charles Flint QC.
These public responses after the charges were laid were consistent with the second element exposed by the emails: how hostile and confrontational City had been to Uefa, and to FFP itself, throughout the process of compliance – at times distastefully so. FFP applied to all top-flight clubs across Europe competing in the Champions and Europa Leagues, seeking to encourage long-term football development and dampen player wage inflation, with detailed new regulations and a sophisticated reporting system developed by Uefa with blue-chip accountants.
City’s chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, was never a major supporter of FFP, seeing it as a restraint of Mansour’s freedom to rebuild City by pouring money in, but the emails showed the resistance went further. It seemed as if the hierarchy had almost taken it personally, feeling that this whole FFP system was a protectionist move to stop Mansour’s extravagance challenging the established superclubs. Perhaps there was something of that in the support for FFP given by Bayern Munich and the German clubs in particular, but they were trying to maintain financial sustainability in the Bundesliga where most clubs are still ultimately controlled by supporters. They and many other clubs in Europe felt it was alien to the game’s traditions for Gulf sovereign investors to buy clubs and spend their way to success.
City perceived their plans for rapid accession to the Champions League elite were challenged by FFP, and persistently threatened a legal challenge. The club’s inhouse lawyer Simon Cliff wrote in one of the published emails that Mubarak had told Gianni Infantino, then Uefa’s general secretary, that he would not accept a financial sanction for exceeding the permitted €45m loss in 2012 and 2013, and said: “He would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue [Uefa] for the next 10 years.”
In 2014, the IC determined that City had a deficit of €180m over that two-year period, vastly in excess of the €45m permitted, and in May that year agreed a settlement which some at Uefa believed was too lenient. A day before that, the former chair of the IC, Jean-Luc Dehaene, a distinguished former prime minister of Belgium and senior EU politician, died aged 73, survived by his wife of 49 years and their four children. Spiegel quoted Cliff’s reaction to this news in an internal email, referring to the membership of the IC: “1 down, 6 to go.”
Since its exposure, no one from City has apologised for that email, apparently due to the stance that the emails were hacked, so the contents, however unfortunate, are not to be acknowledged.
The third element revealed in the leaked material did not mostly form part of the IC’s investigation, having been dealt with as part of the 2014 settlement, but it revealed the extent to which City had engaged in some creative accounting to persuade Uefa it had complied with the new “break-even” rules. Most of these restructurings had been spotted and disallowed by the IC and the consultants, PwC, it sent to peer into the detail.
Following the publication of the leaks, City refused to respond at all to Spiegel, the rest of the media and to Uefa, until the IC, having initially responded uncertainly, decided it had to investigate. City denounced the use of the emails as “out-of-context materials purportedly hacked or stolen”, and alleged there was an “organised and clear attempt to damage the club’s reputation”.
Spiegel anonymised its source as “John” in the coverage, and quoted him denying that he acquired his vaults of 70m documents from football strongholds as a result of hacks, saying he had good contacts. Within weeks he was identified as Pinto, now on remand in a Lisbon prison awaiting trial, charged with alleged hacking and other offences, although only against Portuguese clubs and institutions, not City or Uefa. Pinto acknowledged to Spiegel in December that there was hacking software on his computer, and “some of my acts may be considered illegal”, but denied he had committed criminal offences, saying: “I don’t consider myself a hacker.”
But for people, or organisations such as City, who find they are victims of leaks, or hacks, there is a deeply uncomfortable contradiction to the consequences. However justified their outrage, if the documents reveal possible wrongdoing, then regulators or governing bodies are duty bound to investigate.
Now, after a review of the evidence and a hearing last month, the AC has decided like the IC, that City’s hierarchy have been damned by their own internal material. For all the fury and belligerence of their response, the club have not explained away the impression and apparent evidence that they deceived European football’s governing body with their financial submissions, even while they were spending huge money to star in its glittering competition.