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MacKenna On Monday: Class Is The One Thing Man City Cannot Buy

Go on, admit it. You couldn’t give a rat’s…

Instead you were sucked in by the slick football and six goals last week that promise so much in Europe; you were wowed by not just the score but the ease of what was behind that score in a derby demolition yesterday; you were thinking this could be the season of a Premier and Champions League double, as Pep Guardiola’s cult and reputation grow still further.

It’s a strange point of focus though, for right now one of the biggest stories in the sport ought to surround Der Spiegel’s exposé of the real Manchester City, the one we all knew existed but could never prove. That it went on for four parts over as many days was too long, with the latter couple giving wiggle room for some to say there was nothing to this.

Only there was. A huge amount of substance and abuse that was an incredible insight not only into how the club cheated, but how they knowingly and sordidly went about that cheating.

Yet no matter how often you visit the scene of a crime, it’s amazing in sport how many are bought and sold by the effect, never wondering about the cause. We’d suggest a symptom-and-disease style analogy except so few see this as any sort of illness to begin with. Not most fans, not most media, not most players, not most of football as a whole.

If you haven’t read it, you should. And if you still won’t bother as you’d rather keep living the lie, below is a synopsis that only skirts the surface but that still pours shame and sucks the credit and achievement out of so much of what they’ve done since 2008.

Buying something is bad enough.

Stealing something you can afford is a whole new level.

To the point, you should give a rat’s…

* * *

“I’ve finally got enough money that I can buy my way out of anything. I can do anything I want. Finally, Big Ern is above the law.” – Ernie McCracken, Kingpin

When Financial Fair Play was introduced back in 2013, the relatively new Manchester City owners had been well forewarned from within about the threat it posed to their purchasing of all before them. There were however underhanded ways around it.

For instance when initially hard up, the Etihad Stadium brought in big sponsorship as did the airline’s name on the jersey, all to increase income to allow for a bigger spend. When they still fell short – £9.9m short to be exact – internal memos showed up suggestions in what amounted to a think-tank around cheating.

One example was chief executive Ferran Soriano simply saying that sponsors should pay up the bonus for winning the FA Cup so they could add it to their takings, even though they hadn’t won it. Eventually, they agreed on re-drawing already signed sponsorship deals with Abu Dhabi, back-dating them, and covering the gap with modified contracts that simply lied.

They had other practices on-going too, always crossing wires, always muddying waters.

When Roberto Mancini was in charge the majority of his salary wasn’t even coming from the side he managed and thus wasn’t on the books. Instead, he was a crazily paid adviser to Al Jazira in Abu Dhabi that is also owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

With sponsorship deals supposed to be independent under the FFP guidelines to stop what they were doing, Manchester City’s weren’t. They were caught out to a degree on this but along with Paris Saint-Germain, both agreed on cash settlements with UEFA to avoid expulsion from the Champions League. This after they’d threatened to sue UEFA with so many toys flung from the pram in all directions, as they thought they were too big to fail.

Indeed this was the equivalent of a drunk falling over the kerb and looking for money from the council in an effort to profit from rather than hide his shame. Attack is always the best method of defence for those that have forgotten what it’s like to be told no.

Sadly in a way they were and are too big to fail for there isn’t anyone out there that can fight City’s legal power, and in that sense we are now in the danger zone where a competitor becomes bigger than the competition they are in. We’ve seen elements of this in other sports from Lance to Serena to Usain, and we don’t know the half of it.

It turns out UEFA didn’t know the half of it either, and thus the problem is two-fold. Firstly City had been let off lightly due to their huge clout. However, they were actually doing far more behind the scenes than UEFA thought they were letting them off for.

Other practices involved forming a subsidiary via a collapsed Icelandic bank and a group of tax havens to take away the costs of some standard business activities. As one example, the club transferred marketing rights they usually purchase from players to such a subsidiary, wiping that hit from their balance sheet and they then found buyers for those rights. It all involved the back-channelling of their money through shell accounts and off-shore islands and accomplices in what was like something from Ozark.

For sure, that Manchester City and their owners hate FFP makes sense and is clear. In one report to club executives, Soriano said of the European Club Association, “They are all pushing for FFP in a way that would ashame (sic) any industry association”. The irony of that and the fact he later suggested a victimisation will become clear shortly. But while not liking the rules is fine, it should create an effort to change those rules. Not break them.

However, that’s not the Manchester City way with one email from director Simon Pearse summing up so much. “Of course, we can do what we want,” he said.

Move over ‘Superbia in Proelio’.

This is a more worthy motto for the vile, modern-day version of this once proud club.

* * *

Simon Pearse is an unseemly character.

Not solely because of his job in marketing, a sphere that caused Bill Hicks to once remark, “There’s no rationalisation for what you do and you are Satan’s little helpers”. It’s also because he made his name at Burson-Marsteller, a company whose past clients range from Nicolai Ceaucescu to Union Carbide, and whose reputation led to the famous jibe, “When evil needs public relations, evil has Burson-Marsteller on speed-dial”.

However, what emerged last week will be the easy part for him given what he’s already covered up and washed clean when the bloody stain should have lasted a lifetime. When Sheikh Mansour bought the club a decade back, where the money came from never mattered to most. All that did was the money.

In spite of the brutal reality.

For instance how many times have you heard it mentioned that Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest and most powerful of the emirates that make up the UAE, a nation that is to a huge extent behind a modern-day infanticide in Yemen, where children are starved for a political power play and elitist flexing, so long as they haven’t yet been blown up from above?

How many times have you heard it mentioned how they go about their business? As an example, there’s a video showing Sheikh Mansour’s brother using a cattle prod on a business partner that is being held down by police, and beating a man with a board with a nail sticking out from it, literally pouring salt into his wounds, electrocuting him and setting him on fire.

How many times have you heard it mentioned that the real power broker here behind the scenes is Sheikh Mansour’s brother, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and that his key men run the club including chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak? The latter is big into the production of arms and war that is doing so much damage today.

How many times have you heard it mentioned that their troops and his weapons are running secret prison camps in the UAE where torture is common in what’s a war crime?

How many times have you heard that Arabtec, the construction company so fond of slave labour and human rights abuses against migrant workers, was signed up as a sponsor for City despite warnings it would be bad for the brand identity in the west? So they took the money and promoted the relationship in Arab states, Russia and Turkey.

In that case, like many others, they knew what they were doing was wrong, so rather than not do it, they hid it. All in all theirs is a boardroom that isn’t hard to imagine as some evil layer from a Marvel comic, only without the personality and intrigue.

Against that backdrop then, what does breaking the football rules matter? No one has stood up to these people in the real world, so sport isn’t going to take a stand. We’d say mutton dressed as lamb, only that would be understating it to a huge degree on both ends.

* * *

“A new car built by my company leaves somewhere travelling at 60 miles per hour. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don’t do one.”- Tyler Durden, Fight Club

Dignity has a price.

There are those who will always support the club no matter what and their mindset is one that experts should really explore.

They’ll deflect from all of the above by trying to point at others, as grime rarely accepts responsibility. They’ll say FFP is unfair as if football is fair for anyone facing their money. They’ll say that it goes against EU laws when in fact the European Commission rejected the complaint made by the lawyer behind the famous Bosman case, as FFP applies to clubs and not individuals.

And they celebrate. They celebrate as if the deeper pockets of middle-east oil money buying them trophies is some achievement. And they celebrate as the fact that money was made ruining many lives is less important than the fact that their Saturdays are enriched.

However, if that’s to be expected, is a lower threshold for bullshit not expected for higher powers? Integrity has a price too. Think about how all it took for UEFA to drop the charges was €20 million, loose change to such a club.

And consider too that for what UEFA did know, so what are they going to do about what they didn’t know and what we just learnt about Manchester City? That will tell the true price that their integrity is on sale for.

Thus this isn’t solely about City breaking the rules, it’s about a governing body possibly tolerating it.

Should they, it raises all sorts of questions as to what rule-breaking gains cash can buy. UEFA have said nothing on this and right now it all has the feel of the behind-the-scenes self-regulation in the banking sector before the crash. We knew money talked. Now we predictably wait for Manchester City’s to walk.

But there’s one thing it cannot and never will buy.


About Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.