If Manchester City are guilty they have betrayed football as a spectacle

Welcome back, then, to chapter two in the slow-burn but undeniably gripping story of Manchester City and the case of the financial regulations.

At times in the past three years it has been tempting to wonder whether the Premier League had quietly shelved its investigation into City’s internal affairs. But no. The sword of justice never sleeps; or at least, that blade is unlikely to remain sheathed for too long when there is money, football, power, influence, money, and above all money involved.

Related: Manchester City’s Premier League charges: the key questions answered

So here we go again, with another lawyered-up deep dive into undeclared payments, Football Leaks and the leftovers of a befuddled Uefa legal process. Make no mistake, though. This is serious, an array of new charges that threatens, if proven, to undermine the entire edifice of English football’s dominant power of the last decade, not to mention call into question the entire basis and motivation of the nation-state club ownership model.

No doubt news of the charges, which include allegations of inflated deals being struck with connected parties, will have sent shockwaves through City’s commercial sponsors jealous, as always, of their reputations.

Although to date there is no news of any swingeing statement from First Abu Dhabi Bank, Etihad Airways, Experience Abu Dhabi, Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi, Aldar Properties of Abu Dhabi, Masdar energy of Abu Dhabi, and e& telecoms of Abu Dhabi. No word either from Dude Wipes, the club’s official male-oriented toilet paper partner, although who knows, all things considered this may well turn out to be a case for the dudes.

Not that anyone should be getting too carried away. These are simply charges. City have already seen one guilty verdict overturned on the same issues, and will fight this case with the same vigour. Uefa’s two-year ban from the Champions League for perceived financial irregularities would have effectively derailed the entire Abu Dhabi project. Little wonder City were so palpably furious at the process, the verdict and the degree of punishment handed down.

“We didn’t break the rules. We played the same rules as all the clubs in the Premier League and Uefa,” Pep Guardiola said at the time, a rare step into the politics of ownership during his seven years as an employee.

Pep was right, on the face of it. But there is a little misdirection here. The guilty verdict was dismissed because the court of arbitration for sport (Cas) decided, on a 2-1 majority, that some of Uefa’s claims were time-barred, which is not quite the same as having them properly examined and dismissed. Other charges were “not established”, which means the weight of evidence was not sufficient. But Cas also made a point of stating that Uefa’s charges were “not frivolous”. Or in other words, there was certainly enough to bring a case. Albeit, with a fist-bump to Uefa’s lawyers, not a very good one.

Pep Guardiola at the Etihad Stadium
‘We didn’t break the rules. We played the same rules as all the clubs in the Premier League and Uefa,’ said Pep Guardiola in 2020. Photograph: Mike Egerton/PA

Two years on the Premier League has come to a similar conclusion. That judicial blade is once again cleaving the air. To put it frankly, we could have an absolute crapshow on our hands.

It has to be assumed that the Premier League believes it has taken the initial step of meeting the two points where Uefa’s case fell down. There is no time bar here and the league has been able to gather more evidence than a sheaf of Football Leaks printouts. If so then this is potentially a very serious matter. Ultimately, the Premier League has the power to impose fines, dock points and strip titles, even to relegate City (this, of course, will never happen: City are also wonderful content).

Before then there are three questions worth asking. Are these charges for real? Is the process fair or even necessary? And what might it ultimately mean?

The first of these is clear enough. The weight of charges suggests this is more than simply being seen to act. It isn’t hard to see why. The Premier League has been heavily criticised across Europe, accused of drowning the wider world in a wave of money. The financial muscle of nation-state clubs is a key argument employed in favour of a Super League, the Premier League’s only real commercial threat.

There is a good reason here to go after City publicly, to be seen to regulate that issue. Plus, of course, the Premier League is no more than the combined will of its members. Uefa may have no real stomach for an extended fight. But the Premier League is Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and every other club whose interests are diminished by City’s on-field success. Justice: whatever it takes. But money does tend to lead the way.

As for fairness, City’s supporters will point out, correctly, that there is plenty of chicanery elsewhere. Chelsea’s £1.5bn rolling debt to Roman Abramovich seems to have been all fine, somehow. But this argument doesn’t really lead anywhere. The misdeeds of others are not a free pass to break the rules. This is a case for more not less regulation.

Related: Football Daily | Manchester City could soon have some serious questions to answer

The other point here is that the financial rules are in themselves unjust, that this is simply a way of hoarding the wealth, protecting the cartel, excluding newcomers and all the rest. Putting aside the heart-rending prospect of multibillionaire autocrats being denied their sacred right to buy things, all the things, instantly, the fact is these rules do exist. Make a case. Challenge them publicly. Convince the wider world they should be reformed. But the idea the rules can simply be ignored if you have the means and the power is morally repugnant.

There are other costs here too. This may all sound like high-level infighting, balance-sheet chat, something to be wearily shrugged away like everyday corruption in British politics.

But there is also a serious point here. Somewhere buried at the bottom of this bed of white noise, beneath the grotesque commercial circus and the nation-state powerplay, is the idea of robust sporting competition, of sport as something uplifting, open and accessible from any level, of a pyramid of opportunity.

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Football stopped being a fairytale some time ago. But if City are found guilty of cooking the books over an entire era of English football success, they will have pretty much snuffed out that light for good, broken not just the rules but the spell, the sense that what you’re watching is still on some level real and credible and straight.

This affects the lives of everyone caught up in this thing. Football is a narrative in so many lives. Feelings of triumph and gloom; difficult financial choices; the opportunity cost of a season ticket or an away trip, with treats and pleasures given up along the way: decisions affecting all of these things are influenced by the conviction that this thing is for real and that all clubs are playing by the same rules.

City are accused not just of breaking the rules but of betraying that spectacle. This is a club that has won 14 major domestic trophies across that period, which has wafted your favourite player away, retained the best coach in the world, which has dominated the stage. All of this has been based on being able to pay for it. If they are found guilty – and this is a long way off, pegged between appeals, arbitrations and the distant, dazzling prospect of a trip to the high court – then the punishment must be commensurately harsh.