Twenty-four minutes. That is how long it took for Real Madrid to complete a pass in the Manchester City half of the pitch last week, as the team coached by Pep Guardiola dismantled the Spanish side in the Champions League semi-finals. And that pass, by the way, was a kick-off after conceding a goal.
The final score was 4-0 but, to many observers, it was as magisterial a performance as we have seen from an English club side in European competition.
It was an emasculation of European football’s most decorated aristocrat, having previously taken apart German clubs Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig in previous rounds.
In the Premier League, City hit Manchester United for half a dozen in October, and put four past Arsenal and then Liverpool during a 12-match winning streak that has sealed a third title in a row and fifth Premier League trophy in six years.
The disassembly of Madrid brought to mind a quote from the former Arsenal player Theo Walcott after he endured one of Barcelona’s more mesmeric displays against his own team in 2010. “It was like someone was holding a PlayStation controller and moving the figures around,” he said.
In Spain, they used to call it “ganar sin despeinarse”, meaning to win without messing your hair up, and there have been occasions in recent years where Guardiola’s football is so surgical, so pinpoint, so balletically undisturbed and beautiful, that you begin to wonder whether it is all a personal choreographed recital, rather than a sporting occasion that depends on jeopardy.
And, in the coming weeks, confirmation of this team’s greatness is likely. The Premier League is sealed and should City beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final on June 3 and Inter in the Champions League final on June 10, then City will become the second English team, along with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 1999, to secure all three trophies in the same campaign.
If successful, Guardiola and his players will have a strong claim to be the greatest English football team in the sport’s history. But their employers may, yet, also have a strong claim to be the greatest cheats in the history of the sport in England. This was the framing of an analysis piece in The Times of London on Saturday, which ended by inviting readers to decide online in a poll as to which category should City belong. Seventy per cent had voted “greatest cheat” by Sunday morning.
The genesis is a 736-word statement on the Premier League website in February, which revealed City have been “referred to an independent commission” after being charged with 115 alleged breaches of Premier League rules between 2009 and 2018. It certainly gave a different meaning to the “Centurions” tag that City bestowed upon themselves when they became the first club in Premier League history to hit 100 points in the 2017-18 season.
Among the charges, City stand accused of failing to provide accurate financial information, “in particular with respect to its revenue (including sponsorship revenue)”; failing to disclose managerial payments during the Italian coach Roberto Mancini’s time at the club between 2009 and 2013; and breaching Premier League rules on profit and sustainability between 2015 and 2018 (Guardiola arrived in the summer of 2016).
They also stand accused of breaching Premier League rules on profit and sustainability in 2015-16, 2016-17 and 2017-18, while the Premier League also argue City did not comply with UEFA, European football’s governing body, regulations around financial fair play in 2013-14 and between 2014-15 and 2017-18.
City were banned from European competitions for two years by UEFA for alleged breaches of its FFP regulations in February 2020. The sanction was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in July of the same year, however, when the court ruled “most of the alleged breaches were either not established or time-barred”.
Some of UEFA’s charges were time-barred, in that they were outside the organisation’s five-year statute of limitations, but most of them were simply “not established”, as far as the panel was concerned. City painted this as vindication, but they were also fined €10million (£8.7m, $10.8m) for not cooperating with the investigation.
There are no such time-barring restrictions on the Premier League’s investigation and the potential punishments, outlined in rule W.51 of the Premier League’s handbook, range from a reprimand and fines to points deductions — and even expulsion from the Premier League.
In a statement, City expressed their “surprise” at the Premier League’s charges and pushed back against suggestions they had failed to engage with the investigation.
Neatly, City have not lost a match since the charges landed in February. Various reports have suggested a sense of perceived injustice brought City’s group closer together, although it may all be a coincidence given City have previously demonstrated similar form late on in a season.
The expectation is that it will be years rather than months by the time a final verdict is delivered, which leaves the Premier League and City in a state of purgatory. The speed of the legal process does not fit neatly around Premier League seasons and as such, English football’s top flight is currently trapped.
On Sunday afternoon, the loveless marriage between the competition’s organiser and its champion was demonstrated once more. Before City’s 1-0 win against Chelsea, the club’s supporters paraded flags gifted to them for the occasion and belted out the Queen hit “We Are the Champions”. Then the Premier League anthem played and it was drowned out by boos around the stadium, as supporters back their club’s executive in taking the fight to the division’s organisers.
Earlier this season, City supporters even unveiled a flag in honour of Lord David Pannick QC, a barrister who recently attempt to defend the former British prime minister Boris Johnson in the “partygate” scandal, but who is also defending Manchester City in their trials and tribulations with the Premier League.
In the final, perfect encapsulation of the Premier League’s contradictory role as competition organiser, regulator and prosecutor, Richard Masters, its chief executive, stood at the podium on the Etihad Stadium pitch, handing out medals to the club his own organisation alleges to be serial cheats.
To some, and perhaps this applies most notably to former footballers in their roles as pundits, the City performances are so poetic that it has become blasphemous to even debate the how and the why of the club’s success.
On Saturday evening, when Arsenal’s defeat at Nottingham Forest confirmed City’s latest title, the BBC’s highlights programme Match of the Day dedicated 25 seconds (question and answer inclusive) to the topic. BT Sport, the British broadcaster of the Champions League, paid scant attention to the matter during their coverage of City’s win against Real Madrid. Champagne was handed out in the press room at the Etihad on Sunday.
Those currently playing within football, even for City’s rivals, never bring up the topic. “For the players, it is ‘whatever’. They respect City’s football talent and are disinterested in the wider schematic,” says a source who has worked at a Premier League club, but spoke anonymously, like others in this piece, to protect his relationships.
In short, nobody in a rival dressing room is pointing out how City earned £1.7billion in commercial income in the ten years to the end of 2020, while Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal averaged £1.1 billion each. Critics would argue this was an unlikely outcome given the breadth of the respective clubs’ global support, and City might point to the work of a commercial masterclass.
This debate is largely confined to courtrooms, as well as pages of broadsheet newspapers or social media baiting.
Last week, at one stage, #LanceArmstrongFC began to appear on Twitter while other users shared the clip from the film Damned United, which recounted Brian Clough’s 44 days at Leeds United in 1974, in which he told his players their previous success had been won through unfair means.
“As far as I’m concerned,” Clough tells his Leeds players, “the first thing you can do for me is chuck all your medals and all your caps and all your pots and all your pans into the biggest flippin’ dustbin you can find. Because you’ve never won any of them fairly. You’ve done it all by bloomin’ cheating.”
Until the Premier League returns a verdict, we will endure these peculiar cycles, where City win things and a myriad of journalists and rival supporters line up to question the authenticity of the success, and those within City defend the club’s honour.
As for why the football industry itself remains so quiet, there can be various explanations.
Ordinarily, if a club is mired in scandal, we might expect sponsors to have something to say about the matter. But none of those who associate with City (either the many linked to Abu Dhabi or the ones completely separate to the state) have put forward any concerns publicly.
The next thing to say is that the Premier League has now brought the charges, so it is simply a case of waiting and watching. This has not always been the case.
During the four years in which City remained under Premier League investigation, rival clubs would seek to press for progress on the matter in various ways. This sometimes included informal phone calls to Premier League HQ from owners and chief executives of its clubs. On other occasions, legal letters or requests for information would land at the Premier League. Sometimes, clubs sought to catch the Premier League and City cold by requesting updates in shareholders meetings. The clubs would always be told by the most senior Premier League personnel that the matter remained under investigation and no further information could be disclosed.
It is worth saying, too, that the protests were not limited to those clubs at the top of the division. “The whole division believed it to be outrageous,” says a source familiar with such Premier League meetings. “They would be agitating and asking what would happen, which could never be answered.”
If you are wondering why clubs in the lower reaches may be concerned about City, then take the example of Everton. In March this year, the Premier League referred Everton to an independent commission over an alleged breach of financial fair play rules in the 2021-22 season. Everton narrowly stayed up last year and remain imperilled this time around, meaning any points deductions given to Everton (if found guilty) could have spared the status of their closest rivals. Everton said they were disappointed by the decision and pledged to robustly defend their position.
We must also recognise that those who have dared to speak publicly before have been the subject of smears and briefings.
When, for example, Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp said in October there are “three clubs in world football who can do what they want financially” (by which he meant state-linked clubs City, Newcastle United and Paris Saint-Germain), media reports carried anonymous quotes from senior City sources to say that the German’s comments were felt to be “borderline xenophobic.” No spokesperson put their name to these quotes, as is often the way in football, but Klopp found himself having to counter baseless allegations.
Much of this strife began when City’s emails and documents emerged from Football Leaks and found their way into the German newspaper Der Spiegel in 2018. City’s detractors say the documents appeared to show City bypassing financial rules within football by disguising state investment as sponsorship revenues. City have always refused to comment on any of the German newspaper’s revelations because they say the leaks were “criminally obtained”.
In one email, a leading City lawyer wrote that Khaldoon al Mubarak, the club’s chairman, had said that “he would rather spend 30million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years” than agree to any financial settlement or penalty from UEFA.
City’s strategy, increasingly, appears to show a pattern of prevarication and obstruction, kicking the can so far down the road that the players who benefited from some of the earliest alleged breaches have now retired. It has an effect, too, on its critics, because the charges begin to feel so drawn-out, so historic, that anyone who continues to bang on about City or scrutinise the club is depicted as having a vendetta — either due to an alleged distaste for the club’s Abu Dhabi ownership, or because of the vested interests of those they represent.
This was the fate to this week befell Murray Rosen KC, the barrister who is the head of the Premier League’s independent judicial panel and who will appoint the chair of the independent commission to adjudicate on City’s case.
Rosen, who has spent almost half a century in the profession, is an Arsenal supporter, which raised objections from City. It seemed a peculiar approach for a club who greeted the 115 Premier League charges by saying it welcomed the chance to present its “comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence that exists in support of its position.” The protest over the involvement of an Arsenal fan seemed particularly absurd when you consider that City’s own defending barrister, Lord David Pannick KC, is also an Arsenal fan.
Despite City’s public statement about welcoming the chance to present their irrefutable evidence, the Premier League charges include allegations the club obstructed the investigation, first heading to court to question the league’s jurisdiction to investigate it and then once more to prevent any details becoming public.
Lord Justice Stephen Males, a High Court judge who heard the latter case, wrote: “This is an investigation which commenced in December 2018. It is surprising, and a matter of legitimate public concern, that so little progress has been made after two and a half years — during which, it may be noted, the club has twice been crowned as Premier League champions.” Twice, of course, has now become four.
Kevin Parker, the general secretary of the Manchester City supporters club, said in February that the club’s achievements “will be tainted if the club are found guilty.” Gary Neville, the former Manchester United defender and now prolific pundit, stated similar in a newspaper interview this weekend.
As for the Premier League, it is an uncomfortable predicament surrounding a club that has claimed seven of its past 12 titles. It must be frustrating for Guardiola and his players too, because if indeed City are innocent, then it must be rather irritating to have their achievements clouded by these discussions.
The Premier League, we should remember, is a private company owned by whichever 20 clubs are competing in the division. And moments such as this would appear to underline the absurdity of the Premier League being the competition organiser, regulator and prosecutor simultaneously. For a long time, we wondered whether a body that seeks to sell broadcast deals all over the globe would view it as being in the competition’s interests to move decisively to accuse one of its own of a decade’s worth of cheating.
There will likely be talk now of a potentially tainted competition, or trophies won but accompanied by an asterisk. And it is certainly hard to resist such conclusions if City are found guilty.
And yet, it does feel faintly ridiculous that City’s accounting is the drawbridge at which we all stop and wonder whether the Premier League has lost some credibility. After all, if we are going to relitigate a decade’s worth of City’s success, might it also be wise to consider the 18 trophies won by Chelsea during a period in which Roman Abramovich, a sanctioned pal of Vladimir Putin, loaned £1.6billion to the club? Or that another of Putin’s oligarchs, Alisher Usmanov, continued to sponsor Everton through one of his companies while barred from entering the UK?
Or could the Premier League be tainted by the 80 per cent stake of a Saudi sovereign wealth fund, the Public Investment Fund, in Newcastle United? The PIF is chaired by the Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who U.S. intelligence services deemed responsible for approving the operation that killed the journalist Jamal Khashoggi (MBS describes the findings as flawed). On Saturday afternoon, Sky Sports ran a jubilant interview with the Nottingham Forest owner Evangelos Marinakis, who has been investigated for the financing of heroin smuggling but has always strenuously denied any criminal activity.
This is all a masterclass in whataboutery, of course, and pointing over there is rarely the answer. This is an argument for more regulation, rather than a descent into further embarrassment. If found guilty, the reality will be that City are the ones who signed up to a set of rules they did not like and then proceeded to break them.
Besides, none of the above appear to have done anything at all yet to derail the popularity or commercial value of the Premier League, and it is probably fair to say the plotline of City (hypothetically) beginning a campaign with docked points, for example, would do more to stir attention than turn viewers away.
Equally, the Premier League might point to their rival competitions. In Italy’s Serie A, Juventus’ transfer dealings remain under investigation. In Spain’s La Liga, the champions, Barcelona, have been charged with corruption concerning payments made to the former vice-president of Spanish football’s refereeing committee and his son, all of whom deny any wrongdoing, in a case brought by the Spanish public prosecutor’s office.
Beyond the commercial ramifications, there are the intangibles. The double standards.
How would we treat another sport, say cycling or track and field, where the most successful outfit, boasting the most talented coach and gifted players, is accused of cheating over a course of a decade? The UK parliament would likely haul the sport’s organisers over hot coals in a select committee and we would question if we believe what we are seeing in front of us. Scepticism would be conditioned.
But there is, rightly or wrongly, a further reality at play. If a doped-up athlete has been putting needles in their arms or consuming substances so they can run higher, jump further or move faster than their rivals, it is a more engaging and compelling narrative for the general public to wrap its head around, because we are directly familiar with the athletes who turn out in front of us, and because it is frankly easier to understand.
To demonstrate that the books may have been cooked over a ten-year period is technical, dry and, to be blunt, not what most people are seeking when they desire an escape in sport from the ennui of everyday life, or when they log onto Twitter or TikTok for a bitesize bulletin of the latest sports news.
Yet this story is experiencing a cut-through. On Saturday evening, the BBC released a six-minute video by one of their lead news presenters Ros Atkins, who became popular during the COVID-19 pandemic for his thorough explanations of things that really mattered. The video, which Atkins introduced by saying that “questions remain about how the club does business”, had recorded three million views by the time City picked up the title the following evening.
Yet even if athletics might attract scepticism, the truth is that when the 100 metres races start at the Olympic Games in Paris next summer, they remain the hottest ticket in town.
And, deep down, even if the worst — or best, depending on one’s view — happens with Manchester City, many suspect that the Premier League will likely be the same.
(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)
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