https://www.spiegel.de-Since the sanctions imposed on Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, links between English football clubs and authoritarian states have been in the spotlight. Internal documents show that Manchester City has received funding from a government agency in Abu Dhabi.
Manchester City players. A comprehensive dossier with documents from the Football Leaks trove appear to reveal a system that was well established for several years.
Foto: Manchester City FC / Getty Images, DER SPIEGEL
The Manchester City defensive wall is 7.4 meters (24 feet) high, 109 years old and cost around 244 million euros. It consists of defenders Rúben Dias, John Stones, João Cancelo and Kyle Walker, and it is one of the reasons why the team is currently on track to win its fourth English Championship in five years and is in the Champions League quarter finals.
No other football club in the world spends as much money on players as Manchester City. The CIES Football Observatory added up the transfer fees paid by the “Cityzens” over the last 10 years and arrived at a total of 1.7 billion euros. The team’s financial resources seem unlimited. After all, it is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a member of the Abu Dhabi ruling family.
After the team from eastern Manchester spent decades wallowing in mediocrity, ManCity quickly became one of the most successful clubs in the world after Mansour took over control in 2008. In the Premier League, it looks as though the team can only be caught by FC Liverpool, with the two teams, coached by Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp, set to meet on Sunday. And Manchester once again looks set to advance to the semifinals of the Champions League – one year after losing in the final to Premier League rival FC Chelsea.
But the proximity of the English club to the authoritarian nation of United Arab Emirates is a political issue. And recently, particularly since the political climate surrounding Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich changed for the worse following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the spotlight on state influence in professional soccer has shown more brightly.
Facing regular backlash, ManCity also invests significant amounts of money in defense off the field. Club leadership employs some of the best-known and most expensive lawyers in Britain in the attempt to ward off accusations made against the team’s business practices and to slow down investigations into rules violations.
And there is apparently no lack of such violations. New findings from DER SPIEGEL and the journalism network European Investigative Collaborations (EIC)
show that the holding company behind Manchester City appears to have violated the rules by paying millions in fees to player agents and also orchestrated a secret, triangular deal to sign an underage player. Numerous documents provided by the whistleblower platform Football Leaks provide a deep look at the club’s inner workings and at government agencies in Abu Dhabi – sufficient to inflict a few chinks in ManCity’s juridical defensive wall.
Like the Qataris’ investment in Paris Saint-Germain and the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund’s purchase of Newcastle United, the billions of euros spent on ManCity by UAE is primarily, it would seem, an attempt to use success on the football pitch to improve the country’s image
. The UAE, after all, allows no political dissent at home, disregards human rights and is under suspicion of having committed war crimes in the ongoing violence in Yemen – which the UAE denies. The team owners are apparently willing to pay any price necessary to appear in the best possible light on the stage of elite football. And it looks suspiciously as though one of the richest nations in the world is financing the team’s operations, using hidden payments to circumvent spending rules.
In 2020, the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) banned the team from the Champions League for two years due to revelations published by DER SPIEGEL. Manchester City, represented by almost a dozen top lawyers, appealed the ruling at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). UEFA lost the case, despite the existence of clear evidence for the questionable business practices employed by Manchester City.
Money from the Government
The company Abu Dhabi United Group Investment & Development (ADUG) belongs to Sheikh Mansour and was the official owner of Manchester City from 2008 until last year, when the team was transferred to a different company owned by Mansour. Officials in UAE have consistently insisted that ADUG is a purely private company and Mansour’s involvement with the English team is a completely private investment. In testimony before CAS, a legal representative of the Finance Ministry in Abu Dhabi said that ADUG “is completely unconnected” to the government of UAE or the Emirate of Abu Dhabi.
Research in the Football Leaks documents has revealed, however, that payments from ADUG to the club were cleared by a state office. According to internal documents, the Executive Affairs Authority (EAA), an Abu Dhabi government agency focused on providing strategic guidance, obviously manages the accounts belonging to ADUG. Agency chief Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the de facto prime minister of Abu Dhabi, is head of the state investment fund and is also chairman of Manchester City. He apparently approved money flows that were controlled by the government before ending up in the accounts of the football team. Payment requests for agent fees were sent to the EAA’s general counsel, with ManCity sending an invoice for the sponsorship company Etisalat to Omar Awad, the finance director of the government agency. “Omar works for the EAA and is very important and helpful in facilitating our financial administration of City,” wrote Simon Pearce, a club board member, to a colleague in January 2014.
Were such a situation to play out in Germany, it might look like this: The state-owned railway company Deutsche Bahn would be FC Bayern Munich’s main sponsor, but the club would send invoices for sponsorship money to a senior official in the Chancellery before then writing emails praising the financial services provided to the club by the government official. A rather absurd idea.
At Manchester City, the dividing lines between an authoritarian government and a private football club have become almost indistinguishable. Neither Manchester City nor the EAA officials responded to a DER SPIEGEL request for comment. The new revelations could create significant problems for the Premier League leaders. Already, the English football league has spent years investigating Manchester City, largely out of the public eye. According to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, that investigation is focusing on three primary allegations.
- Underage players were allegedly pressured to sign contracts with Manchester City through monetary payments, in violation of the rules.
- Club sponsors in Abu Dhabi are suspected of having provided only a portion of their payments to the club themselves, with the majority apparently coming from Sheikh Mansour himself.
- Roberto Mancini, who is currently the trainer for the Italian national team but who spent the years from 2009 to 2013 as the trainer for ManCity, is thought to have received a significant portion of his compensation secretly by way of a fictitious consultancy contract.
The Premier League declined to answer questions about its investigation. Past requests for comment sent by DER SPIEGEL to Manchester City have consistently been responded to with a statement that does not address specific issues, and which claims that material and quotes from the Football Leaks trove has been taken out of context. In response to this blanket claim, DER SPIEGEL has chosen to provide comprehensive and contextual information for each of the allegations.
Dossier: Manchester City’s Ties to the State
- Dealing with Underage Players
There are special rules in place for the protection of underage football talents. Clubs are forbidden, for example, from transferring players under the age of 16 across international borders. And they are not allowed to provide monetary payments to underage players, their parents or their agents.
Numerous clubs have spent years routinely ignoring these provisions. Indeed, FIFA even temporarily banned FC Chelsea and Real Madrid from the transfer market due to such transgressions . Manchester City has had to pay both the English Football Association and FIFA at least 300,000 pounds for violations of the youth protection rules.
DER SPIEGEL has in the past reported on hidden payments apparently made by Manchester City to the agent of Jadon Sancho, who was 14 years old at the time. In a case that has thus far flown under the radar, the club transferred 14-year-old Brahim Díaz from Málaga CF to Manchester in late 2013 and apparently trained him in their academy for two years before being officially allowed to register him.
When a player is transferred, training compensation is normally due for the original home club. However, Manchester City brought Brahim to England at a time when no official transfer was possible. Accordingly, it would likely have been difficult for the club to explain why they transferred money to the club in Málaga.
In club leadership emails, it becomes clear that ADUG was prepared to take care of the training compensation relating to Brahim’s transfer, but apparently wanted to conceal its involvement. According to the documents, the Sheikh’s company agreed to pay a 360,000-euro bill owed to Brahim’s youth club through an intermediary agency. The documentation indicates that ADUG paid the money to a company in Barcelona, which then forwarded the money onward to the Spanish club. Apparently Manchester City, like many other top clubs, used creative tricks to circumvent the rules protecting minors.
The internal documents also show that Brahim’s case wasn’t the only instance in which ADUG jumped in to cover the bills. Between 2010 and 2015, the Sheikh’s company apparently paid at least 4 million euros and 4 million pounds to a company belonging to the agent of club legend Yaya Touré. According to the emails, the payments were apparently cleared by ManCity CEO Ferran Soriano and team chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak. The board member Simon Pearce apparently guided the payments from the Abu Dhabi government agency.
None of the clubs, companies and managers involved in these deals have provided comment on the allegations.
A dossier with evidence on this topic can be found here:
Dossier: Questionable Deals with Underage Players
- Sponsorship Money Provided by the Club Owner
Pearce played a leading role when it comes to a main accusation leveled against Manchester City by UEFA and the Premier League – the secretive financing of sponsorship payments by club owner Sheikh Mansour. As a member of the board, he controlled club business while also acting as a special adviser to agency head Mubarak. Pearce managed communications with numerous club sponsors headquartered in UAE and was also the contact person for members of the ManCity finance department when it came to contractual details and payments from Abu Dhabi.
In 2018, DER SPIEGEL published a series of articles
about back-dated contracts, sudden cash injections and “alternative sources” pertaining to the sponsorship payments. Those articles described how Sheikh Mansour was apparently circumventing rules by disguising direct funding to the club as sponsorship payments. The money in question was apparently sent to the companies based in Abu Dhabi, which would then wire the money onwards to the club. The system supposedly allowed the club to claim a low volume of direct investment by the owner and a higher total of marketing revenues – in direct violation of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules. Those rules were designed to prevent clubs from spending more than they earn and thus sliding into financial difficulties or distorting competition on the pitch. It has since become clear that the rules have failed, and they are now to be replaced by a new set of regulations.
As a consequence of that series of articles, UEFA banned the club from the Champions League for two years. But the club managed to successfully appeal the ban before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which ruled that some of the accusations fall under the statute of limitations and that UEFA was unable to provide any evidence beyond that published by DER SPIEGEL. Furthermore, Manchester City had supplied witnesses who vehemently denied the UEFA accusations. CAS noted in its verdict that it saw no reason to believe these witnesses were lying.
One of those witnesses was Simon Pearce. The court asked him if he had “ever arranged any payments to be made to Etihad in relation to its sponsorship obligations of Manchester City Football Club?” His answer: “Absolutely, categorically not.”
An email that Pearce wrote in December 2013 to the COO of Etihad at the time, Peter Baumgartner, stands in direct contradiction to that claim. In the mail, Pearce told the Swiss executive the precise sum that Etihad was to provide, how much he – Pearce – had wired to Etihad for that purpose and what he still owed the airline. DER SPIEGEL has already reported on this telltale email. Manchester City labelled the DER SPIEGEL story “a cynical attempt to publicly re-litigate and undermine a case that has been fully adjudicated.” The club has not responded to a renewed request for comment from DER SPIEGEL. Etihad stated that “all financial obligations” related to the Man City sponsorship were the “sole liability and responsibility of Etihad Airways.”
Nevertheless, it is instructive to take a closer look. A comprehensive file with documents from the Football Leaks database provides evidence of a system that was apparently used for several years:
- In 2012, a portion of the sponsorship money coming from Abu Dhabi was booked internally as “owner investment” – a sum of 150 million pounds.
- In 2013, Pearce asked CFO Jorge Chumillas to provide an overview of ADUG payment obligations and asked that they be divided up according to “club direct payments” and “partner supplements.” The documents clearly illuminate the importance of the additional supplements. In an email to Chumillas, Pearce made it clear that Etihad only had to pay 8 million pounds of the total sponsoring sum of 67.5 million pounds. According to the mail, the remaining 59.5 million pounds was extra – presumably paid by Sheikh Mansour.
- For the 2013-2014 season alone, the supplements from Abu Dhabi added up to 92.5 million pounds. The information pertaining to these supplements was not meant to be shared with outsiders: “We mustn’t show the partner supplement if it is going outside the club,” warned Andrew Widdowson, who was head of finance at the time, in early 2013.
- In 2014, Chumillas and Widdowson discussed money that was still to be paid by Abu Dhabi-based sponsors Aabar and Etisalat. Here, too, they differentiate between the amount being paid by ADUG and the sums for which the companies themselves were responsible. Chumillas wrote: “But actually, formally, we want all of these amounts to be paid by Aabar and Etisalat right?” The answer came: “Yes if they can.”
- In September 2015 as well, club representatives differentiated between a payment of 60.25 million pounds and the 8 million that Etihad “should be funding directly.” Chumillas and Pearce again exchanged emails about the share of sponsorship money that was to come “direct” from the company. The rest was apparently to come out of the budget of shareholder ADUG – Sheikh Mansour.
- In March 2016, the 8-million-pound payment relating to Etihad’s sponsorship made yet another appearance.
Neither Manchester City nor Aabar and Etisalat responded to a request for comment.
Dossier: Manchester City and the Financial Fair Play Rules
Whereas the last two years of pandemic-related financial difficulties created significant problems for professional soccer teams across England and Europe, Manchester City actually managed to increase its marketing revenues in the first corona season. At the beginning of the year, Manchester City was also able to add three new sponsors to its portfolio, all of which are headquartered in UAE. The Premier League has now decided to take a closer look at such deals.
- The Apparently Fake Contract Between Roberto Mancini and Al Jazira FC
When it comes to financial trickery, Manchester City seems to have exhibited a surpassing amount of creativity. In 2009, club leadership turned to the Abu Dhabi-based football club Al Jazira – which is still today backed by Sheikh Mansour – to help conceal hidden salary payments to ManCity manager Roberto Mancini. And the payments were processed by a familiar cast of characters: Simon Pearce and the Manchester City financial department.
The Italian coach was signed by Manchester City on Dec. 19, 2009. According to a preliminary agreement hammered out by the two sides, Mancini was to be paid a base salary of 1.45 million pounds per season, with another 4 million pounds in performance-based bonuses on top of that. On that same day, Mancini signed an apparent consultancy contract – part of which contained identical language to the main contract – with Al Jazira. That deal promised him an annual salary of 1.75 million pounds for his services: “The Fees will be paid to an account nominated by your company and will be paid without deduction of any taxation.”
The company initially named by Mancini to receive those fees was an entity called Sparkleglow Holdings, based in the tax paradise of Mauritius. One year later, he switched to a company registered in Rome called Italy International Services (IIS), which began issuing quarterly invoices. But those invoices were only seemingly paid by Al Jazira: IIS would send its invoices to Manchester City, the club would wire the money to ADUG which would then send it onward to Al Jazira before it was eventually paid to IIS. The system was described by a ManCity employee in July 2012, with Simon Pearce confirming the procedure from the emirate’s perspective.
Those involved declined to provide comment when approached by DER SPIEGEL.
The contract and the emails can be read here:
Dossier: Roberto Mancini and Al Jazira
DER SPIEGEL was the first to report on the case, and it caused quite a commotion in England. Much to his consternation, Pep Guardiola was even confronted at a press conference and asked if he had a similar arrangement with the team. He did not answer the substance of the question.
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The Premier League has been investigating Manchester City since December 2018. The league maintains financial rules similar to those of UEFA. But the club has been doing all it can to fight the investigation – and the club has apparently been just as hostile to investigators as it has been to UEFA. CAS fined ManCity 10 million euros for impeding the UEFA investigation and refusing to cooperate with the body’s Investigatory Chamber.
A case focused solely on the question as to whether the Premier League investigation may be reported on was pursued all the way to the second-most senior judge in the UK judiciary. He ruled that reporting on the case was very much in the public interest. “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,” the court ruled.
The outcome of the Premier League investigation and the possible consequences for Manchester City remain to be seen.