Manchester City wins its 7th title. But asterisks could be coming

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 17: Pep Guardiola manager of Manchester City applauds Erling Haaland during the UEFA Champions League semi-final second leg match between Manchester City FC and Real Madrid at Etihad Stadium on May 17, 2023 in Manchester, United Kingdom. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Pep Guardiola and Manchester City won the Premier League title Saturday for the fifth time in seven seasons. (Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images)

Manchester City wrote three interconnected stories this week, and sports media customs dictate that we begin with the latest: City clinched the 2022-23 Premier League title Saturday. Arsenal’s 0-1 loss to lowly Nottingham Forest put the Gunners mercifully out of reach. It is City’s seventh EPL triumph since 2012, and fifth in seven seasons under Pep Guardiola.

It required a comeback, from essentially 8 points behind Arsenal in early February; but in the end, it was comfortable and anticlimactic, because ever since late February, City has been perfect. Guardiola’s machine — headed by the record-breaking Erling Haaland, propelled by the wondrous Ilkay Gundogan and Kevin De Bruyne, fortified by Rodri and a shapeshifting defense that morphed into the league’s best over the latter half of the season — steamrolled through the world’s most competitive soccer league without regard for the refreshing narratives that Arsenal had teased.

City beat the Gunners in mid-February to stay within touching distance, then dispatched them in April to all but end this two-horse race. In between, there was a steady stream of victories — some businesslike, some rampant — that made Saturday’s clincher feel like the inevitable conclusion.

The Cityzens became the undisputed best team in the sport, and that’s how they wrote the second of three stories as well. They toppled Real Madrid in the Champions League semis with mastery personified. They waltzed to their second European final in three seasons, and this one, surely, they will win.

But the third story remains inescapable. It looms over all the success, and clouds the footballing beauty.

An integral piece of the machine’s foundation was, according to multiple rounds of credible allegations, cheating.

The third story this week was that City reportedly launched a judicial battle with the Premier League, disputing the legality of an investigation into over 100 alleged breaches of the league’s financial rules. The Premier League made those accusations back in February, after a years-long investigation that City allegedly tried to obstruct at every stage. The alleged breaches, which the club has repeatedly denied, date back to 2009, and paint a picture of nefarious accounting and other illicit practices that contributed to City’s 2010s rise from mid-table afterthought to state-owned juggernaut.

The club’s only hope, now, is to fight the extensive charges, and perhaps get off on technicalities — but, in a way, significant damage has already been done.

Manchester City's John Stones, second right, celebrates scoring their side's second goal of the game, as Arsenal's Gabriel Jesus stands dejected the English Premier League soccer match between Manchester City and Arsenal at Etihad stadium in Manchester, England, Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Martin Rickett/PA via AP)

Manchester City won the 2022-23 Premier League title by virtue of Arsenal’s loss to Nottingham Forest. (Martin Rickett/PA via AP)

The nefariousness first came to light in 2018, when German outlet Der Spiegel published a four-part exposé of City’s manipulative dealings. In 2008, the club had been bought by the Abu Dhabi ruling family; it was suddenly fueled by limitless petrostate wealth. But shortly thereafter, it realized that European soccer’s new spending limits, dubbed Financial Fair Play (FFP), would impede the owners’ plan to transform City into an EPL and Champions League contender. So they apparently devised a scheme to circumnavigate the rules.

FFP imposed a player spending cap that was a function of a given club’s revenue. City, according to leaked emails, essentially began inflating the value of sponsorship contracts with Abu Dhabi state-owned companies so that it could report higher revenues, spend more on transfer fees and salaries, and still comply with the rules.

For example, according to one series of emails published by Der Spiegel, City had signed a sponsorship deal with Etihad Airways — the UAE’s Abu Dhabi-headquartered national airline — that paid the club a whopping 67.5 million pounds per year. But only 8 million of those pounds actually came from Etihad; the rest would come from the holding company that Abu Dhabi’s rulers had used to purchase Man City. FFP rules had been designed to prevent billionaires from pumping silly money into a club, and City was brazenly dodging the rules to do just that.

Along the way, club officials displayed ruthless disdain for anybody who dared question them. Rather than try to prove their innocence, they’d counter with a statement that “the attempt to damage the Club’s reputation is organized and clear.” And they’d spend limitlessly on powerful lawyers to fight the charges. When UEFA, the European soccer governing body, found Man City guilty of “serious breaches” and banned City from the Champions League for two seasons, the club took UEFA to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), and won.

But it did not win because it was innocent, only because a statute of limitations had elapsed and UEFA’s proof wasn’t quite conclusive.

Meanwhile, the Premier League’s own investigation was ongoing and seemingly much more thorough.

City allegedly refused to cooperate with it; nonetheless, after almost four years, it produced a remarkably extensive list of alleged breaches — including untrue accounting and undisclosed payments to managers and players. City will fight all of them — it will reportedly pay a single lawyer on par with the most lucrative player salaries in global soccer — but the clouds will remain. And they might be permanent.

The case, which might take years to litigate, could produce any number of penalties. It could also produce another City victory, of course, on technicalities or otherwise; but the Premier League would not have accused a member of such flagrant cheating without robust evidence. And none of what leaked in 2018 has been refuted. City has previously railed against the publication of those “out-of-context materials,” which were “purportedly hacked or stolen,” but nothing that Portuguese hacker Rui Pinto procured, in a series that became known as Football Leaks, has proven to be illegitimate.

So there is a stain, a potentially unremovable stain, on all this success. The alleged violations did not by themselves win seven titles, of course, but they enabled all seven by allowing City to pay billions of dollars, more than any other club since 2008, to assemble a team that is two games away from a treble.

They do not necessarily discredit the brilliance of Guardiola, or of De Bruyne and others. Manchester City — the players and staff — will go to Wembley for the FA Cup final on June 3, and to Istanbul for the Champions League final a week later, unbothered by any improprieties above them. They will celebrate any triumphs, and we will celebrate their impact on the sport, because that is irreversible.

But for Manchester City the club, and Manchester City the state-owned entity, asterisks — or worse — could be coming.

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