Un­fair fi­nan­cial play has el­e­vated City to top of the cash pile

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - COMMENT - TOMMY CON­LON

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

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