City owners refusing to let UEFA rain on their parade
Champions-elect are being moulded into a club ready for any fight, says David Conn
Manchester City need only to draw with West Ham today to win the Premier League and, while the ghosts of calamities past hovered during the goalless first hour of Wednesday's 4-0 victory over Aston Villa, there is no longer at City genuine dread that something has to go wrong.
Sergio Aguero slayed many of City's demons with his 94th-minute winner in that nerve-shredding final game against QPR to seize the title two years ago and the talk this week has not, as in 2012, been all about the trophyless years since the 1970s. Six years and a still barely believable £1bn into the club's ownership by Sheikh Mansour this is a transformed Manchester City.
Expected to claim their second title in two years, the League Cup won, a place in the Champions League knockout stage secured, City are where Mansour's executives, led by the chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, targeted them to be by now. They have world-class footballers in each position, a manager they sought – whose calm and charm has been admired this week – a "brand" going global, with clubs bought in New York and Melbourne, while attending to thankful fans and local roots: a modern, corporate sports organisation, growing accustomed to getting what it wants.
That is why the talk during the run-in this time – raining on City's planned parade – about Uefa's "investigatory chamber" finding the club's £151m loss in 2011-'12 and 2012-'13 in breach of the financial fair play rules, has upset the ownership so markedly. Uefa set a deadline of Friday for City to accept a €60m settlement to be paid to the European governing body over three years, a 21-player limit to next season's Champions League squad and a wage cap to the current level.
City's executives are understood to argue emphatically that they have not breached the rules, and are particularly affronted that their sponsorships with Abu Dhabi companies and the country's tourist authority have been called into question – and, on Friday, the deadline passed with no action by Uefa. It is now said that Uefa will decide tomorrow what to do next; whether to stick with its finding and refer City to potentially tougher sanctions from its "adjudicatory chamber", which the club's ownership will almost certainly fight.
While, in crude terms, the Abu Dhabi relaunching of Manchester City is the most spectacular injection of cash by an owner to buy rapid success in football history – anathema to traditionalists and influential German clubs that are still owned by supporters and have always sought to break even, financially – inside City, they pride themselves on having done things professionally and properly.
Uefa's break-even rules – the stated aim of which is to encourage financial responsibility and dampen down player wage inflation – limits clubs' losses to €45m between 2011 and 2013. City are understood to be adamant, however, that their £151m loss is brought within that much smaller limit after they discount major expenditure on youth development, community work and infrastructure, which is allowed by Uefa to encourage long-term progression.
The rules also say clubs will be considered "favourably" if their £37m deficit is due to their loss in 2011-'12, and was incurred because of player wages on contracts signed before the rules came into force. City, who lost £99m in 2011-'12 and £52m in 2012-'13, are understood to believe this applies to their situation.
Galling to City was the apparent Uefa determination that the sponsorships with Abu Dhabi companies – including the airline Etihad's £35m-a-year naming rights for the stadium, shirt and new training campus – are not "fair value"; that they are more lucrative given their connections with Mansour. City insist their sponsorships were properly agreed, and that Etihad gets good value, as opposed to the Qatar tourist authority's €200m (£163m)-per-year deal with Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), which looks flagrantly overpriced.
Uefa's investigators are also thought not to have accepted the two deals that City's accounts stated had earned them £47m in 2012-13: £22m selling their branding, football and other expertise to their own women's and New York teams; £25m selling players' image rights to third-party agencies. Again, City executives argued these were genuine transactions for good corporate reasons.
More generally, they argue that they have shaped their football project the right way, whatever people feel about the gulf states' extraordinary super-funding to claim English and European trophies. They point to City's extensive community activities and the enormous campus – a £200m development on 80 acres taking concrete shape across Ashton New Road – where they will aim to develop young players. One corner, on 5.5 acres, has been given to a new college, sports centre and swimming pool, at a £20m cost to City, improving a blighted area of east Manchester.
After the loadsamoney talk of the first few days after Mansour's 2008 takeover – fronted then by the Dubai entrepreneur Sulaiman Al Fahim – Al Mubarak, a senior government advisor on his country's image and strategy, has steered a more seemly course, Manchester City being the most far-reaching, globally televised projection of Abu Dhabi itself. The country has been criticised by human rights groups alleging a repressive crackdown on dissent – long prison sentences for people found guilty in disputed trials of planning to overthrow the ruling regime – and for the historically low pay and poor conditions of migrant workers. In Manchester, they have been keen not to put a foot wrong: City are the only Premier League club committed to paying all staff a recognised living wage.
Across Manchester, the Glazer family bought United with £525m of borrowed money and have caused almost £700m to drain out of the club in interest, fees and other charges. Yet, because that has not pushed United into big losses in 2011-'13, they face no sanction.
Uefa do approve of City's community investment, but, simply put, the club breached the rules, which were agreed in 2010 by the 200 top clubs in the European Club Association, and the European Professional Football Leagues, which includes the Premier League.
Eight of the nine clubs sanctioned, including PSG, have apparently settled, but City's ownership faced down Friday's deadline. They expect to win the Premier League today, and face Uefa again tomorrow. Such is the state of the new Manchester City.
Sunday Indo Sport