It was 10 minutes to midnight on May 2, 2014, when Gianni Infantino sent an email to the boss of Manchester City. "Sorry for my 'late-Friday-night email,'" Infantino began in his message to Khaldoon Al Mubarak, the football club's chairman.
At issue was the looming possibility that Manchester City could be suspended from participation in the Champions League due to violations of Financial Fair Play, a set of budget rules established by UEFA for all clubs that qualify for European competitions.
But in his email to Mubarak, one of the most influential businessmen in Abu Dhabi and a close confidant to the ruling family, Infantino sought to put his mind at ease. The UEFA general secretary had sketched out a few suggestions for how Manchester City could escape its predicament with as little harm done as possible - such as by way of a settlement with UEFA.
"You will see that I've sometimes chosen a wording which 'looks' more 'strong,'" Infantino wrote in a submissive tone, making it clear that he was willing to massage certain passages. "Please read the document with this spirit." Of course, Infantino continued, the message was just between us. Strictly confidential. "Finally, I would also like to thank you for your trust. You know you can trust me." Infantino closed his midnight missive with a bit of optimism: "Let's be positive!"
Those days in May 2014 were a turning point for European club football, and Gianni Infantino, who is today the president of the global soccer association FIFA, played a decisive - and rather sordid - role.
The 2013-2014 season marked the first time that clubs which had qualified for a European competition were required to allow UEFA to examine their books in accordance with Financial Fair Play (FFP). The set of rules had been established by the Frenchman Michel Platini as a prestige project defining his presidency of UEFA, the governing body of football in Europe.
There were many good reasons for FFP's introduction. One of the most persuasive was the need to protect the European club tournaments from the vast amounts of money flooding into the football market as oligarchs from Russia, billionaires from the United States and sheikhs from the Arab world invested in clubs across the continent. Tradition-rich clubs that didn't want to sell no longer stood much of a chance against the nouveau riche and their financial doping.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 45/2018 (November 3rd, 2018) of DER SPIEGEL.
The rules stipulate that a club's deficit in the two seasons from 2011 to 2013 could only add up to a total of 45 million euros, and in the three seasons after that, a total of just 30 million euros. Furthermore, teams were required to subsequently verify that sponsoring contracts they signed with companies controlled by their new owners did not distort competition by being overvalued. Artificially inflated sponsoring deals can boost team revenues on the balance sheet, enabling it to afford larger expenditures.
UEFA had spent months investigating nine clubs on suspicions they had massively violated, or were continuing to violate, the new set of budgetary rules. Among them were Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, two top European teams who had made waves in the industry due to the immeasurable wealth of their new owners. Manchester City had been sold to the ruling family of Abu Dhabi in 2008, while the emirate of Qatar had bought Paris Saint-Germain in 2011.
UEFA President Platini and General Secretary Gianni Infantino had repeatedly insisted in interviews that clubs found in violation of the FFP rules could expect harsh penalties. The most severe punishment: suspension from the Champions League. Given the strident rhetoric, the football world was shocked when UEFA reached settlement agreements with both Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain in mid-May 2014.
The negotiations at the time were strictly confidential. Thanks to the whistleblowing platform Football Leaks, however, the enormous pressure exerted on UEFA by Abu Dhabi and Qatar can now be reconstructed. Both Manchester and Paris met almost every step taken by UEFA with threats.
The decisive ally to both of the clubs was the man whose job should have committed him to complete neutrality: UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino. The Football Leaks documents show just how unconscionably the top functionary sided with the newly wealthy clubs, both of which didn't just violate the Financial Fair Play rules. They held them in contempt.
During the FFP proceedings, Infantino met with club bosses from Paris and Manchester on several occasions for secret talks, even supplying them with confidential materials. He proposed compromises that he was unauthorized to propose. In short: He betrayed his own organization.
The documents make it look as though Infantino, through his intervention, purposefully sought to thwart the so-called Club Financial Control Body (CFCB), the UEFA panel responsible for monitoring adherence to the Fair Play rules and for proposing penalties to be imposed on potential violators.
The panel has two chambers. One is the Investigatory Chamber, which can initiate proceedings against a club and propose penalties for serious violations. The other is the Adjudicatory Chamber, which hands down the final verdict and imposes penalties. The Investigatory Chamber, however, can reach an amicable agreement with a club in the form of a settlement.
It is vital, however, for the CFCB to maintain its independence: Neither the executive committee nor the UEFA president's office are allowed to exert influence on members of the Club Financial Control Body at any time.
That, though, is exactly the red line that Gianni Infantino crossed in spring 2014. The leaked documents make it look as though he was the willing executioner for two clubs that wanted to get UEFA investigators and auditors off their backs.
In the 2013-2014 season, the Investigatory Chamber of the CFCB included eight members. Its chief investigator was former Belgian Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, who fell gravely ill in early 2014. He was succeeded by Brian Quinn, an economics expert from Scotland who had held a senior position at the Bank of England before becoming chairman of Celtic Glasgow in 2000.
The Investigative Chamber required Paris Saint-Germain to open its books to the body for the first time in July 2013. One year earlier, the state-owned Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) had signed an "Agreement for the Promotion of the Image of Qatar" with the team, which was to run for five years and generate revenues averaging 215 million euros per year for the club.
It was a ludicrous amount of money, far more than the market would bear and inconsistent with anything that might smack of economic logic for the Qatari company. By comparison, FC Bayern Munich's main sponsor at the time, Deutsche Telekom, paid the team an annual sum of 29 million euros. It looked, in other words, as though the marketing contract was merely a façade, meant to allow the Qataris to pump as much money into the club as possible.
The agreement with the Qatar Tourism Authority consisted of a mere five pages and obligated Paris Saint-Germain to advertise for Qatar and "participate annually, at the request of Qatar, in its promotion activities." Otherwise, the team had to do nothing for QTA: It didn't have to put the company's logos on its jerseys, it didn't have to put up advertising in its stadium, it didn't even have to put a link on the club home page. The real reason for the excessive payments was a different one - which is also spelled out in the five-page agreement: Money from the Qatar Tourism Authority was to be used to buy players. By doing so, Paris Saint-Germain was to help Qatar become "a major player in the sporting world."
In response to a query about the deal, PSG stated that it was not a sponsoring deal, but that it was a "nation branding" agreement -- marketing for the entire country of Qatar. "Nation branding is of another scale compared to traditional sponsoring contracts," club executives wrote.
Following its acquisition of PSG, Qatar used exactly this line in its confidential "Strategic Plan 2012-2017." The goal was for the club to "become one of the top 5 European football clubs," and, by leveraging the brilliance of the stars Paris Saint-Germain was to acquire, to improve Qatar's global image as the host country of the 2022 World Cup. And that is what ultimately happened. With the money from Qatar, the club quickly signed the superstar striker Zlatan Ibrahimovi, and followed up the move with additional spectacular transfers such as those of Ezequiel Lavezzi and Edison Cavani.
From the very beginning, UEFA's investigators apparently viewed the billion-euro deal with the Qatar Tourism Authority as a clear violation of Financial Fair Play. They were skeptical of clubs whose sponsoring revenues came almost exclusively from state-owned companies that were under the control of club owners.
The Investigatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body sent auditors from Deloitte to Paris Saint-Germain headquarters and they spent three days closely scrutinizing the team's books. At the conclusion of their examination, they disclosed to the team's general director, Jean-Claude Blanc, that they considered the team's marketing partner, the Qatar Tourism Authority, to be a "related party."
The term set off alarm bells at Paris Saint-Germain headquarters. It meant that the two contractual partners were too closely interlinked, both on a personnel and organizational level, and that the alleged sponsoring payments were seen as hidden cash infusions for the club.
Five independent auditors, who also analyzed the QTA contract on behalf of the Investigatory Chamber, arrived at the same conclusion, a disaster for Paris Saint-Germain. Indeed, the top international sports marketing agency Octagon assessed the "fair market value" of the contract at just 2.78 million euros, an 80th of the sum that Qatar was contractually obliged to pay to Paris Saint-Germain. "Based on any conventional wisdom or practice," the marketing experts from Octagon wrote, no "rational sponsor would pay such money for this kind of exposure." They went on: "QTA pays a rights fee that is hugely inflated within the sport."
On Feb. 21, 2014, UEFA investigators notified the club that the Investigatory Chamber was continuing to examine Paris Saint-Germain's books for violations of the Financial Fair Play rules. In early March, head investigator Quinn invited club executives to a hearing at UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland.
In April, a preliminary closing report noted that the "maximum fair value" of the QTA contract was 3 million euros. The culpable debt liability for the two seasons from 2011 to 2013 were thus calculated to be "at least 215 million euros." The chamber was considering referring the case onward to the Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body.
But that never happened. Instead, high-ranking UEFA officials toned down the most severe findings of the report - and withheld the sensitive document in Nyon.
Why they did so is unclear. What is known, however, is that by this point, Paris Saint-Germain executives had already been engaged in confidential talks with UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino for weeks.
In February 2014, the team's General Director Jean-Claude Blanc had agreed with advisers that the club's Qatari president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, should head to UEFA headquarters as quickly as possible for a meeting with Infantino and UEFA President Platini. Even before the investigation into PSG's finances began, Blanc had advocated for the exertion of significant legal pressure on UEFA.
A secret meeting was held in Nyon on Feb. 27, with Blanc, Khelaifi, Infantino and Platini - who PSG executives consistently referred to as the "Top Guy" in their internal communications - in attendance.
The Football Leaks documents hint at the threatening attitude adopted by the Qatari club boss. They indicate that right at the beginning of the talks, Khelaifi fired a shot across Platini's bow by saying that the UEFA president surely had no interest in launching an attack on Qatar via the football club.
The mood at the meeting remained tense. Infantino recommended his two guests work toward an amicable settlement with the analysts from the Investigatory Chamber. Both Khelaifi and Blanc rejected the idea out of hand. A settlement, they demanded, could only be negotiated "at the top levels," - in other words, with Infantino and the "Top Guy" Platini.
It was a presumptuous demand akin to requesting that the FFP Investigatory Chamber be circumvented. Instead of rejecting the demand, Platini and Infantino became involved in backroom diplomacy with the Qataris and their French representatives at Paris Saint-Germain.
Prior to publication, partners with the European Investigative Collaboration (EIC) confronted both UEFA and Paris Saint-Germain with the accusation. Both answered with an excerpt from UEFA rules in which it is noted that the association's administration may support the work of the Investigatory Chamber with personnel and infrastructure. The rules also say that the chambers must be "independent."
During the negotiations, a lawyer who worked for UEFA supplied PSG with confidential documents from the Investigatory Chamber. That same lawyer then met with representatives from Paris Saint-Germain on March 21, 2014.
The Paris-based football club had adopted an extremely inflexible position: no admission that it had violated the Financial Fair Play rules. Club owners were particularly interested in escaping the matter without any damage to their image.
According to the Football Leaks documents, the UEFA lawyer apparently backed down and requested that the club submit proposals for how to solve the issue.
In the weeks that followed, several secret discussions took place between Infantino and PSG General Director Blanc. In early April, they met in London, where Infantino apparently provided his binding acceptance of a settlement. His most important condition: PSG had to reduce the value of the contract with the Qatar Tourism Authority to 100 million euros per year - still more than 30 times higher than the "fair value" established by the analysts from Octagon on behalf of the FFP Investigatory Chamber.
On the occasion of the French League Cup final between Paris Saint-Germain and Olympique Lyon on April 19, the two sides held a secret meeting at which they agreed on the details of the agreement. They allowed the club to make up the 115-million-euro difference with new sponsors, again most of them from Qatar. That part of the agreement was to be left out of the settlement document.
In return, Infantino insisted the wording of the settlement be strict enough that UEFA didn't lose face as a result of the deal. It was a victory for PSG and proof that Infantino went behind the backs of the Financial Fair Play monitors in spring 2014.
But the collaboration with the top French club was not an isolated case. Infantino also spent weeks negotiating with the owners of Manchester City behind the backs of the independent auditors. Ultimately, it resulted in a falling out with Brian Quinn, the chief investigator of the Investigatory Chamber.
Manchester City was already aware in May 2013 that the new Financial Fair Play rules spelled deep trouble. The club had lost 451 million euros between 2009 and 2011. "We are breaching anyway," wrote Finance Director Andrew Widdowson, an admission that the club had too many losses on the books to satisfy FFP rules. We are, he continued, "just relying on mitigating factors to get us through."
In January 2014, UEFA monitors sent auditors from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) to Manchester. The result was a disaster. Fully 84 percent of "other commercial income" originated from sponsors from Abu Dhabi. According to the report, the club had hidden 35 million euros in costs from UEFA in its annual statement of accounts.
Manchester City reacted reflexively to the pressure with pressure of its own. The club put its lawyers on war footing, and almost all of its responses to UEFA reflected that aggression. "The PwC Report is seriously flawed in that it contains numerous erroneous interpretations of the Regulations, false assumptions of fact, errors of law and erroneous conclusions," read the reply. The lawyers demanded that the PwC auditors revise or delete large sections of their report. PwC refused, which further enraged the Manchester City attorneys.
In mid-March, Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano carried out negotiations with Infantino related to the Financial Fair Play rule and threatened to challenge the Financial Fair Play rules in European Union courts. In an internal memorandum, the club's attorneys noted that if a "sensible settlement" was not reached with the Investigatory Chamber, Manchester City would "have no choice but to fight U (meaning UEFA) on all legal fronts." The club, they suggested, was expecting "a warning, but no further action."
Yet the evidence did not appear to be in Manchester City's favor. The marketing experts from Octagon, who had already issued a disastrous report card on Paris Saint-Germain at the behest of the FFP monitors, found that three of the four sponsoring contracts that Manchester City had signed with companies from Abu Dhabi were "significantly overvalued." They added that the deals, which had brought in 50 million euros in revenues, were up to 80 percent higher than their actual market value. Following an additional visit to Manchester, the PwC auditors determined that two Man City sponsors were "related parties." The same situation as with Paris Saint-Germain.
But by then, Infantino was already in the process of trying to outmaneuver the Investigatory Chamber. Together with CEO Soriano, he set up a meeting in early April between two lawyers, one representing Manchester City, the other UEFA. The two attorneys reached an agreement that the club would make a proposal for an amicable solution. It was a bit like a bank robber proposing an appropriate sentence to the prosecutor.
The strategy, as one attorney suggested to Man City leadership, should be to reach a deal the club could live with, but without having to admit any misconduct. "Apply as much pressure as possible, but by always giving UEFA a way out."
On April 15, Soriano informed club president Mubarak that another meeting between the two lawyers was scheduled. "I had a good telephone call with Gianni Infantino where we agreed how to brief the lawyers ('to negotiate a settlement that is more than a warning and can be seen as effective/dissuasive but does not affect dramatically MCFC business')."
But by the end of the month, the club was apparently still not satisfied with the progress of negotiations. Club lawyer Simon Cliff wrote in an email that Mubarak had told Infantino that he rejected the idea of a possible monetary penalty. "Khaldoon said he would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years." The football association, according to the email, now had the possibility "to avoid the destruction of their rules and organization."
Then came May 2, 2014.
Both Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City received letters from the Investigatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body. The letters were not signed by chamber head Brian Quinn. He had resigned from his post as chief investigator that same day at UEFA headquarters in Nyon - because he considered the agreements too lenient given the size of the breach. Umberto Lago of Italy took over for Quinn - and the chamber ultimately signed off on the deal.
Paris Saint-Germain had reached its goal. Club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi signed a settlement agreement. The club may have amassed a deficit of 218 million over the two preceding seasons, but the penalty was nevertheless grotesquely benign: Just 20 million euros, nothing but pocket change for the Qatari sheikhs.
The deal with Manchester City was a bit more complicated, not least for Gianni Infantino. According to UEFA, the club's deficit was at least 188 million euros, but there was still no settlement in sight. Umberto Lago wrote that an amicable settlement had to be reached by mid-May, otherwise he would refer the case to the Adjudicatory Chamber of the Club Financial Control Body. Should that have happened, the team could have found itself facing a Champions League ban.
That was the reason Gianni Infantino sent Manchester City Chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak his deferential "Let's be positive!" email just before midnight. In Manchester, after all, the mood had shifted dramatically against UEFA leadership.
On May 9, Manchester City executives showed up in Nyon for an appearance in front of the Investigatory Chamber. One day prior, Mubarak and Soriano had attended a secret meeting with Infantino in London to prepare the details of a settlement. But the meeting at UEFA headquarters achieved no results.
Manchester City leadership was furious. The meeting in Nyon had been "a disgrace," raged the club's chief legal adviser Simon Cliff, and the deal they had hammered out with Infantino, he complained, had been disavowed by the Investigatory Chamber. He sent out a confidential memorandum with the title: "POSSIBLE LEGAL ACTIONS."
Cliff considered overwhelming UEFA with lawsuits. He felt that "UEFA doesn't respond to anything other than aggression" and he wanted to take both Platini and Infantino to court in Switzerland for abuse of office and conflicts of interest. He also had it out for the auditors of PwC. It is possible, he wrote, that a lawsuit "could destroy the entire organization within weeks." He went on: "If PWC was under threat, you could then imagine them suing UEFA for damages and, if they collapsed, all their creditors suing UEFA too."
On May 11, 2014, the last day of the season, Manchester City won the Premier League title, their second in three years. One day later, Gianni Infantino wrote to Mubarak: "Unfortunately I've been informed that the Investigatory Chamber has come to the conclusion that the positions are still too distant for them to agree on a settlement agreement." He wrote that he found the situation regrettable and closed with a statement that could hardly be more ironic: "But the Investigatory Chamber is an independent body and I have to respect their decision."
Then, the club received a confidential message from UEFA President Platini explaining that at the Europa League final in Turin, he had spoken with Patrick Vieira, a member of French side that won the 1998 World Cup and who was working on behalf of Manchester City. "Please tell your owners in Abu Dhabi they have to trust me," Platini wrote in the message. "We understand and like what they are doing with the club." And, wonder of wonders, Gianni Infantino then extended a new settlement offer to Manchester City. "I feel like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day," one high-ranking club official complained.
On May 16, Man City CEO Soriano signed the agreement. The penalty was just as mild as the one that had been levied against Paris Saint-Germain: 20 million euros. In an email to Manchester City managers, Soriano wrote that the settlement "does not materially affect us."
In the years following the settlements, PSG and Manchester City together spent more than a billion euros on new players.
The EIC investigative network contacted Manchester City to request comment about the events described in this story. In response, the club said it would not reply to the questions posed and added: "The attempt to damage the Club's reputation is organized and clear."
Just how cynically and disdainfully Manchester City viewed the Financial Fair Play monitors, which they successfully managed to evade with Infantino's help, can be read in an email written by Cliff.
One day before Soriano signed the settlement on behalf of Manchester City, Jean-Luc Dehaene, who had led the Investigatory Chamber until falling ill in early 2014, died.
"1 down, 6 to go," Cliff wrote to a Manchester City employee who had informed him of Dehaene's death.