Reasons Why Man City's Legal Battle with the Premier League Seems to be Influenced by Man United, Leeds, and Newcastle, According to IAN HERBERT


It had not yet become clear that Manchester City were planning to go to war with the Premier League, when the club’s Abu Dhabi chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak made a statement — in hindsight, loaded with significance — about how much he’d loved winning last December’s Club World Cup.

‘It’s a great joy being able to compete with teams from all over the world, outside Europe, for a serious competition,’ he told City’s in-house media interviewer last Saturday. ‘And now, the privilege of qualifying to play in the next, new edition of the Club World Cup.’

Al Mubarak was giving voice to a truth which became brutally clear when it emerged that City were going to court to blow up rules which have prevented Abu Dhabi companies from funnelling limitless cash into the club through sponsorship deals.

Four consecutive titles are all well and good but City still don’t command the global traction of Manchester United and Liverpool. Their presence is growing — but Leeds and Newcastle still generate more interest. 

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak (left) has made it clear that a global presence is the priority

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak (left) has made it clear that a global presence is the priority 

For all of Man City's success on the pitch, the club do not have the same prominence as some of their international rivals

For all of Man City’s success on the pitch, the club do not have the same prominence as some of their international rivals

Manchester United are still by far the biggest club in the Gulf. City still want more accelerated growth — grander, global significance which will perhaps finally earn them the level of cut-through which still hasn’t come. It’s why England’s champions are already just one central function of a multi-pronged City Football Group.

If the casual disregard for the Premier League, the English top flight and decades of history invites opprobrium and transparent loathing from British clubs and commentators, then City will live with that, because they frankly just don’t care.

That much is evident, say some executives, in the demeanour of Ferran Soriano, their chief executive, when they encounter him at Premier League meetings. ‘Put a black pepperpot on the table and he’ll argue it’s white,’ says one executive. ‘He’s the one who thinks he’s moving the pawns around the table,’ says another.

There are echoes here of another Gulf nation, Qatar, besieged by criticism over human rights abuses from the Western media before and during the 2022 World Cup. The Qataris were utterly indifferent to that, too. They looked way beyond the West and its complaining media. Middle East bragging rights were all that mattered to the hosts. They felt they were winning those.

The Premier League will have their hearing with the club over the 115 charges in November (CEO Richard Masters pictured)

The Premier League will have their hearing with the club over the 115 charges in November (CEO Richard Masters pictured)

Soriano has made a career out of trying to turn clubs global. In 2011, the soon-to-be City chief executive published a collection of ideas on how to excel in the football business, subtitled: ‘The ball doesn’t go in by chance.’ He listed United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal as the ‘clubs that aspire to be global leaders’. City, the team for which he subsequently left Barcelona, didn’t feature on his list.

The book is full of self-congratulatory talk of how he made Barca rich by looking beyond Catalonia. He relates: ‘A well-known American sports manager once said to me, “I don’t understand why you don’t see that what you should be doing is boosting teams like Sevilla and Villarreal to make the Spanish league more exciting and maximise income”.

‘While I was listening to him, I found it difficult to think about maximising any income of any kind, because all I wanted and cared for was for Barcelona to win all the matches, win and always win, independently of the “tournament overall income” or suchlike concepts.’ 

A sense of City’s abiding struggle for genuine British superiority is written through the 165-page legal document that will form the basis of the club’s two-week arbitration hearing, which starts next week.

The Premier League failed to regulate spending when clubs such as United were more dominant, City’s lawyers argue. City have been prevented from monetising their brand the way United once did, they say. The rules have penalised clubs who have ‘lower-profile sporting histories’ the document states. Clubs such as City. They seem haunted by United.

Four consecutive titles are all well and good but City want much more global traction

Four consecutive titles are all well and good but City want much more global traction

The Manchester club seem haunted by the towering legacy of their crosstown rivals

The Manchester club seem haunted by the towering legacy of their crosstown rivals

The Premier League would be wise to quote Soriano’s own book back at him and City’s lawyers. He cited United’s own marketing expertise as the reason why they built such a lead on the rest and even described borrowing from United’s ideas at Barcelona. ‘Analysing Manchester United made it possible for us to see that they had built a complex, professional marketing structure,’ he wrote.

But 13 years on, Soriano prefers to promote City’s disgruntlement and sense of injustice. The club have long detested Associated Party Transaction (APT) rules, which have prevented the Gulf flooding their clubs with cash. It was 10 years ago last month that Uefa found City had breached FFP rules, with suspicion around a number of Abu Dhabi sponsorship deals.

The sums that City claimed the deals were bringing in have always been questionable. Etisalat, the state telecoms company, were supposedly paying £30million for 2012 and 2013, but it later emerged in a legal hearing that City owner Sheik Mansour’s equity company ADUG had paid the money ‘on behalf of Etisalat’.

Aabar, an Abu Dhabi investment firm, paid £15m but only £3m from their own funds. Sponsors Healthpoint, a chain of clinics, and First Gulf, a bank, were funded by the UAE’s bottomless sovereign wealth fund, Mubadala. Mubadala’s chairman is Sheik Mansour. Its CEO? Khaldoon Al Mubarak.

Ferran Soriano (second right) prefers to promote City's disgruntlement and sense of injustice

Ferran Soriano (second right) prefers to promote City’s disgruntlement and sense of injustice

Premier League clubs await the outcome of this defining legal case with a mood of trepidation. Some rivals feel that, on paper, City’s case is fraught with contradictions. They seem to be acknowledging that clubs cannot spend whatever they want and that a financial sustainability framework is fair. But the dismantling of rules that they propose would effectively allow clubs unfettered income — and thus the freedom to spend what they want.

Yet it is City — ‘the strongest guy in the playground’ as one executive describes them — doing the prosecuting and therefore many clubs feel there is always an inherent risk of defeat. ‘It’s part of a whole sea-change of people opening the rule book and seeing it as something to be got around, rather than something around which everyone can cohere and look to agree,’ an executive says.

The rules governing what clubs must do to prove that their sponsorship deals represent fair value seem, on the face of things, perfectly clear. Appendix 18, 19 and 20 of the Premier League Handbook spell them all out in remarkable detail.

A data analytics company, Nielsen Sports, is used by the Premier League to determine the fair market value of sponsorship deals. But City will argue that Nielsen’s retention for more than two years calls into question their integrity and independence. Anything, it seems, is challengeable.

Do not expect Soriano to betray any emotion as a court case of such huge significance gets under way next week. He urges readers of his book to ‘find the perfect balance between intelligence and emotions for each moment’ urging them: ‘You must learn to manage your emotions.’

That same book draws a distinction between mere ‘national clubs’ and elite ‘super clubs’, whose commercial supremacy allows them to monopolise the best players and the biggest trophies. City are in the super-club category, leaving Bournemouth, Ipswich and Fulham far behind. For them, domestic domination is not nearly enough.



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