Editor's Note: This is the second chapter in a four-part series on the Manchester City football team that will be published Monday through Thursday of this week. You can read the first chapter here.
The path to football immortality got off to a rough start this year, on a cold, wet, East Manchester evening in September. The Man City stadium wasn't sold out and many of the VIP boxes were empty, rather surprising given that it was the team's first Champions League group match, pitting the club against Olympique Lyon. It ended in frustration, and with a surprise loss, the French team emerging with a 2:1 victory. City fans began heading for the exits in the 80th minute.
Last season, star trainer Pep Guardiola and his team had shattered numerous Premier League records. Never before had a team scored as many goals, collected as many points or won as many matches. But in the Champions League last spring, Pep's team was booted out of the tournament in the quarterfinals by FC Liverpool. In fact, City has never made it to the Champions League final; it is the last title the club must win to take its place in the pantheon of football excellence. Guardiola's contract even includes a bonus of 2 million pounds should he succeed.
That yearning for recognition -- and for the ample prize money that comes along with it -- is all tied to this accursed tournament put on by UEFA. But Manchester isn't particularly fond of UEFA. For years, the team's fans, otherwise a rather quiet lot, have passionately booed their hearts out when the Champions League hymn is played. City fans feel that they and their team have been victimized by UEFA. In particular, the penalty the team was forced to pay in 2014 due to its violations of UEFA's Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules was seen by fans as unfair.
Yet documents from the whistleblower platform Football Leaks reveal that UEFA actually showed Manchester City far too much lenience. The European football association was aware that it let City off the hook with a ludicrously low penalty, despite the club's far-reaching deception. What UEFA didn't know, however, was the vast extent of Manchester's deceit -- mendacity that began the moment in 2008 when Sheikh Mansour purchased the club.
When the new club bosses from Abu Dhabi bought the team in 2008, Man City was in poor shape. It hadn't won a Premier League title in 40 years and constantly had to play second-fiddle to its crosstown rivals, Manchester United. But they began implementing their strategy immediately: Pumping as much money into the club until it could compete, or rather, until it could impose its will on the competition. In the first two years after the ownership change, Manchester City spent over 300 million euros on new players. Sheikh Mansour's managers began catapulting the team to an altogether different class starting with the very first player transfers.
But there was a problem: UEFA's FFP rules, which prohibited clubs from spending more money than they brought in. In the worst case, teams that violated FFP provisions could be prohibited from taking part in European competitions, including the Champions League. UEFA President Michel Platini was adamant: "If a club does not keep to the rules, we will make no concessions."
No wonder Man City executives were unsettled. Their entire strategy depended on cash injections from a man who owns a 500-million-euro yacht with two helipads and who possesses one of the fastest and most expensive cars in the world, the Bugatti Veyron. And he has five of them. According to confidential club calculations, he pumped around 1.1 billion pounds into the team in just the first four years he owned Man City.
Club executives realized as early as January 2010 that the new FFP rules, which were to go into effect in 2013, would torpedo their business plan. After all, they planned to continue hemorrhaging money in the coming years. One potential response to the FFP rules would have been quite simple: City could have established new sources of revenue that were not linked to the sheikh, cut costs and lowered the expectations many had for the football project. But no: If you want to buy your way into football heaven, you can't let a few rules get in the way.
In the summer of 2010, Man City spent over 140 million euros on new players, with an additional 90 million invested the next year. Before the team's sale to the new owner from Abu Dhabi, players such as Martin Petrov, Rolando Bianchi and Georgios Samaras were on the City roster, but they soon had to make way for names like Sergio Agüero, Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tévez. In 2012, one year before the FFP rules went into effect, Man City's bookkeepers sounded the alarm. "Without significant additional revenues (...), UEFA FFP compliance WILL NOT be achieved," noted an internal presentation. Avenues to avoid non-compliance "need to be pursued aggressively."
Club leadership began searching for allies in their attempt to avert the approaching disaster. Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano reported back to other club executives about a meeting of the European Club Association (ECA), a group representing the interests of professional teams in Europe. And he could hardly hide his disdain for those who supported the FFP rules. "They are all pushing for FFP in a way that would ashame (sic) any industry association."
He said some clubs were secretly opposed to FFP, but that they were afraid to say so openly. Which made things more difficult. "We will need to fight this," Soriano wrote in his memo, "and do it in a way that is not visible, or we will be pointed out as the global enemies of football."
Behind closed doors, they began looking for "creative solutions" to circumvent the rules, resulting in the launch of a secret project with the rather military-esque name "Project Longbow." In explaining the name, the club's chief legal adviser, Simon Cliff, noted in an internal email that the longbow was "the weapon the English used to beat the French at Crecy and Agincourt." For Man City club leadership, the enemy was apparently Michel Platini, the French UEFA president, and his signature project, FFP.
Among club employees, Project Longbow would become synonymous over the next several years with the battle against Financial Fair Play. Under Soriano's leadership, Man City established "a central model" that "allows for many of the operational costs to be shifted either fully or partially away from the club."
It is a telling window into the team's approach: High costs and losses are fine as long as they can be hidden from UEFA. To help do so, Manchester City established a subsidiary to take care of a share -- and the costs -- of some standard business activities.
For example, the club transferred the marketing rights for its players to an external company. Normally, professional teams have to pay their athletes for the right to use them in club marketing material. But City drummed up buyers for those marketing rights -- an ingenious plan. Suddenly, the club no longer had to pay the marketing fees -- the new buyers did, resulting in spending cuts for Man City. Furthermore, the sale of the marketing rights generated additional revenues for the club to present to UEFA investigators: almost 30 million euros in this case. The marketing company adopted the name Fordham Sports Management and it is "very material for our longbow target," City's chief financial officer, Jorge Chumillas, noted internally.
The deal was too good to be true. The club had brought on board two experts to construct the castle of lies: Jonathan Rowland and his father David. The senior Rowland, a well-connected investment specialist, had been in the news in previous years as a result of the millions of pounds he had donated to the Conservative Party before then being appointed party treasurer. He never actually took up the post, however, withdrawing after it came out that he had hardly paid any taxes in the UK over decades. Rowland is still considered today to be a close ally of the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.
David Rowland and his son Jonathan together took over what was left of Kaupthing Bank in Iceland after its collapse during the financial crisis. The result was Banque Havilland, and a list of its branches reads like a travel guide for investors looking to avoid pesky questions and tax obligations: Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, the Bahamas, Switzerland. The owners of Fordham, the company that bought the marketing rights to Manchester City players, are likewise well-hidden: The path first leads to a British straw-man company, then to the British Virgin Islands and finally to the Rowland family trust.
Why so secretive?
Internal Manchester City documents shed light on the true nature of the deal. A concept paper shows that Fordham Sports Management is merely one element in a closed payment loop: Sheikh Mansour's holding company, Abu Dhabi United Group, transferred money to the Rowlands for the purchase of the marketing rights and to pay Man City's players for their marketing appearances. The money transfers were coordinated by Manchester City itself. Fordham, in other words, was merely a vehicle for hidden capital injections from Abu Dhabi.
Jonathan Rowland wanted additional confirmation of that. "We need to know that AD is fully behind it this is the most important thing," he wrote on April 4, 2013, to Simon Pearce, a club executive and adviser to the Abu Dhabi ruling family. In response, Pearce sought to put Rowland's mind at ease and let him in on the plan: "Regarding the ongoing operating costs, every year we will send in advance the cash of approximately 11 million." The "we" in this case is the holding company that Sheikh Mansour had used to buy Manchester City: Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG). "I have ended up as the de facto MD (managing director) for ADUG," Pearce joked in one email to colleagues.
It was a farce: A club director was controlling the expenditures of the club owner's holding company, money that would travel around the world before landing in the team's coffers. His boss, Man City Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak from Abu Dhabi, with tight links to the ruling family, gave his blessing to the payments.
Neither David nor Jonathan Rowland commented on the Fordham deal when contacted by journalists with European Investigative Collaborations network.
In the first year that the new FFP rules were in effect, UEFA's Investigatory Chamber examined Manchester City's numbers. Once auditors had pored over documents filed by the club, UEFA found that Man City was in violation of Financial Fair Play. The club responded with indignance and threatened to sue UEFA, the auditors and others involved in the finding. Ultimately, the team managed to hammer out a deal with UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino that achieved one primary goal: avoiding anything that might hurt Manchester City.
But the negotiations between UEFA and City didn't address Fordham at all. Rather, the focus was on the value of the team's sponsoring contracts and other company entities that had been outsourced. In other words, the team's violation of the Financial Fair Play rules was far more egregious than thought.
It was only the next year that auditors from PricewaterhouseCoopers took a closer look at Fordham on behalf of UEFA. "This was a very good deal for MCFC," a PwC analyst, using the abbreviation for Manchester City Football Club, noted in a conference call with team executives. He added that he was having trouble figuring out "how Fordham expected to make a return." The response from club lawyer Simon Cliff was the pinnacle of cynicism. He didn't know, he said, because Fordham hadn't shown Manchester City its business plan. At a different point, one of Cliff's co-workers claimed that City had made the deal with Fordham because "the price was right." Of course, it was: The club had determined the price itself.
The EIC network also contacted Manchester City for comment. Officials at the club said they would not respond to the questions. "The attempt to damage the Club's reputation is organized and clear," a spokesperson wrote.
The Fordham episode reveals how club owners circumvented the rules imposed by UEFA. And that Manchester City's management follows the dubious logic of the superrich. Indeed, it goes so far that City employees have sought to impede human rights organizations and control the press. The next chapter in the series is called "Football and Politics."