Unfair financial play has elevated City to top of the cash pile
GIVEN the geysers of cash that both clubs have been turning over for the last decade, it is surely only a matter of time before the Manchester derby is newly nicknamed the Monopoly Money derby.
When the United squad faces the City squad at the Etihad today, it will be £300m versus £242m in annual wages respectively — or vice versa, depending on which financial reports you read. It doesn’t really matter which club is spending more, or which player is earning most, because in this hyper-inflationary bubble, money no longer seems anchored to real-word meaning or value. If they had no other way of doing it, Alexis Sanchez and Raheem Sterling would be bringing their wages home in wheelbarrows.
City historically have been the corner shop to United’s supermarket during this long rivalry. And when Ron Atkinson started splashing the cash at Old Trafford back in the early 1980s, United developed a reputation for financial extravagance that was widely considered unseemly if not downright unfair. They were trying to ‘buy’ the hallowed old First Division title rather than earn it the hard way.
Obviously these quaint principles of fair play and monetary conservatism disappeared over the following decades, swept away in the Klondike Gold Rush that was the new Premier League era. And just when you might have expected the bubble to pop, it instead continued to expand. Steel magnate Jack Walker took his millions and transformed his home town club, Blackburn Rovers, into champions. Then Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea FC with his billions and made Uncle Jack’s investment look like bingo money. Then, ten years ago, an oil dynasty from the United Arab Emirates arrived with enough money to, in turn, dwarf the Russian plutocrat.
Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan bought City in 2008. He has apparently left Abu Dhabi only once to see his team play in the flesh. The ballpark estimate is that he, through his network of companies, has spent a total of two billion euro on the club. It could be three billion for all we know, because we are dealing with a concept that has been alien to most of humanity throughout its history: money unlimited, money unmoored, untrammelled by laws of supply and demand — just endless supply, as weightless and omnipresent as air.
It is something from a myth, a fable, this fantasia of riches that is so far beyond reality it can only be conjured in the imagination. And in a fairy story, this chosen child, this divinely ordained being, would lavish their miraculous fortunes upon the poor and the sick and the wretched of the earth. They would build hospitals and schools and homes; they would feed and water the world. Instead, Sheikh Mansour pays £53m for Kyle Walker from Spurs.
The upshot is that of the two Manchester teams, it is United who are looking marginally more in touch with reality these days. Which, after a century of the shoe being on the other foot, is a fair old reversal of roles. Those of us who saw United as the money-fuelled enemy of a level playing field now improbably find ourselves having to rethink our position.
The latest revelations from Football Leaks, as published by the German magazine Der Spiegel over four days last week, will aggravate anxieties about the Abu Dhabi project in Manchester. Basically they allege that City have been cooking the books to dodge UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations (FFP). UEFA introduced these rules in 2013 to achieve an equilibrium between expenditure and revenue at clubs, in order to prevent them from accumulating dangerous levels of debt. It was also seen as an attempt to rein in the accelerating competitive chasm between the super-clubs of Europe and the chasing packs in their respective domestic leagues.
The internal documentation sourced by Football Leaks suggests that City sought to balance, at least in part, their astronomical spending on transfer fees and wages with bogusly inflated revenues from their portfolio of corporate ‘partners’. But most of these partners, such as Etihad Airways, Etisalat and Aabar, are controlled by the Abu Dhabi United Group, Sheikh Mansour’s holding company, which also owns Manchester City. And these companies have allegedly paid way over the industry rate to become City’s corporate sponsors.
This is just one example of the balance sheet manipulation unearthed by the Football Leaks dig. One email has a City executive, Simon Pearce, proposing to colleagues that “We could do a backdated deal for the next two years (. . .) paid up front.” When a colleague asks him if they could change the date of a payment from the sponsors, Pearce replies: “Of course, we can do what we want.”
Der Spiegel baldly asserts that “Manchester City financial reports were a web of lies; the (club) walked all over the Financial Fair Play rules.” As a result, City are enjoying “a competitive advantage that no club in the world can keep up with, except perhaps one — Paris Saint-Germain, which is bankrolled by gas-rich Qatar.”
Manchester City is the flagship club in an expanding worldwide project; Abu Dhabi now also have franchise football clubs in New York and Melbourne; they have stakes in clubs in Spain, Uruguay and Japan. It is all part of an international public relations drive, a “soft-power strategy of the ruling family,” according to a specialist on Middle East politics quoted in the magazine.
They feel they need some positive PR, presumably, given that the UAE is by all accounts an enthusiastic contributor to the horrific Saudi-led destruction of Yemen, while also running a frighteningly repressive regime back at home, according to Human Rights Watch.
Contacted by journalists last week for comment, Manchester City officials refused to answer specific questions. “The attempt to damage the Club’s reputation is organised and clear,” wrote a spokesperson in reply.
United look more in touch with reality