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Did Manchester City cheat its way to the top of the Premier League?

The Premier League has charged the current league champions with over a 100 counts of financial wrongdoing and failures to cooperate

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and manager Pep Guardiola celebrate after winning the Premier League earlier this year.
Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak and manager Pep Guardiola celebrate after winning the Premier League earlier this year. (REUTERS)

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Soccer’s richest and most watched league challenged its defending champion on Monday with more than 100 charges of alleged financial wrongdoing and failures to cooperate with an investigation that took more than four years.

Dozens of charges allege breaches of the league’s financial monitoring rules dating from 2009, or the first full season Man City was owned by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi. Thirty more charges relate to Man City’s lack of cooperation in the past five seasons with a Premier League investigation that opened after leaked, and likely hacked, club internal communications were published in 2018.

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That leaked evidence led UEFA investigators to examine likely breaches of financial rules designed to create stability in an often-volatile European soccer industry. UEFA-appointed judges imposed a two-year ban from the Champions League in 2020, which the club overturned on appeal at the Court of Arbitration for Sport. Man City seems more at risk from the English case, which does not involve a statute of limitations on evidence that was a problem for UEFA lawyers.

The Premier League rule book — signed off by member clubs like Man City — gives its disciplinary commissions sweeping powers to punish teams if charges are proven. That could range from imposing a fine to taking away a title or even ejecting Man City from England's top division.

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Known as Financial Fair Play, the regulations are aimed at preventing clubs from spending more than they earn. FFP was established in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis, which deepened worries in European soccer that clubs could go out of business if the cost of player transfers and wages kept rising.

Critics believed they would favor storied clubs with established global appeal, such as Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Manchester United. They said FFP would be used to thwart emerging clubs who had wealthy owners ready to spend heavily and accelerate growth.

At the same time, historically underachieving Manchester City was bought in September 2008 with sovereign wealth from the United Arab Emirates. When UEFA in 2011 began monitoring finances of clubs who qualified for European competition, City had made progress by spending big on players.

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The first round of FFP judgments in 2014 saw the heaviest penalties for Man City and Paris Saint-Germain — each lost 20 million euros ($21.4 million) in Champions League prize money. Both were suspected of booking inflated revenue in their accounts through sponsor deals at above market rates with companies from Abu Dhabi and Qatar.

“If clubs use unrealistic deals as a way to get around Financial Fair Play,” Arsène Wenger had warned in 2012 when coach at Arsenal, "it will make a mockery of the rules.” The English Premier League later adopted a version of UEFA FFP rules.

In November 2018, Man City was the Premier League champion with three titles in the first decade of its Abu Dhabi era, and a talented squad coached by Pep Guardiola.

Yet skepticism remained about the club's commercial results. German magazine Der Spiegel then published the “Football Leaks” series of articles based on the club's internal documents and communications. They suggested Man City had broken FFP rules in financial relationships with "related-party" sponsors from Abu Dhabi, its use of image rights payments to players and the contract of Roberto Mancini, who was manager from 2009-13. He allegedly doubled his base salary for advising a club in Abu Dhabi.

Man City did not deny the documents were authentic but said they were illegally obtained by a Portuguese man, Rui Pinto. He later went on trial in Lisbon. A verdict is scheduled in April. After the Football Leaks publication, UEFA’s club investigators revisited their case and asked the judging chamber to ban Man City from European competitions.

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In February 2020, those judges banned Man City for two seasons for “serious breaches” of rules from 2012-16, including overstating sponsor revenue and failing to cooperate with investigators.

Three CAS judges overturned the ban in July 2020, ruling that some UEFA charged were not proven and other evidence was excluded as time-barred. The court “strongly condemned” Man City for obstructing UEFA’s investigation, though a €10 million ($10.7 million) fine was one-third of the original punishment.

Allowed to play in the next Champions League, Man City reached the final and earned 119 million euros ($128 million) in prize money. The English case against Man City continued separately from the UEFA process in Switzerland. The Premier League announced charges Monday. A lawyer who chairs the league’s judicial panel will appoint a disciplinary commission of three judges.

A hearing will be held in secret, with no timetable yet for a verdict. Any subsequent legal challenge should go to the Premier League’s Appeal Board. Man City said it was surprised by the charges and “we look forward to this matter being put to rest once and for all.”

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