What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, or in the case of the Premier League versus Manchester City, a list of 115 charges of financial impropriety and reams of “irrefutable evidence” to the contrary are put in front of an independent commission?
Anyone who says they know where this affair is heading, or how long it will take, is a liar. The reigning EPL champions stand accused of cooking their books for almost a decade, overstating their revenue and downplaying their costs, to circumvent UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules and unlock the full scope of the riches of Sheikh Mansour, the Abu Dhabi royal family member who owns them.
Manchester City players celebrate with the 2022 Premier League trophy.Credit:AP
With no avenue to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which got City out of a jam in 2020 when similar allegations were made against them by UEFA, it looks like there will be one big winner and one big loser. Points deductions, stripped titles and even relegation are all on the table if City are the latter.
It seems a million miles away from the small-fry affairs of the Australian game, but it’s not. Nine years ago, the City Football Group – Manchester City’s parent company – bought A-League club Melbourne Heart for $12 million, changed their name and colours, and turned them into arguably the country’s most dominant team, now one of 11 CFG satellite clubs throughout the world.
While there is no reason to think what’s happening in Manchester is any reflection on what’s happening here, it does give pause for reflection on CFG’s increasing influence on Australian football, the motives behind it and to what extent it has been healthy – just as those in Europe are asking themselves the same questions.
The pitch is a good place to start. Whether people like them or not, CFG has been the conduit for so many recent success stories in the Aussie game, which would be easily worse off without them in a football sense.
Since the takeover, Melbourne City has won five grand finals (four women, one men), four premierships (two each) and one Australia Cup. They are on course for more trophies this season and, at their best, their men’s team plays the sort of awe-inspiring football not seen since Ange Postecoglou’s Brisbane Roar.
Speaking of Postecoglou, he wouldn’t be where he is today without CFG, who appointed him as coach of Yokohama F. Marinos – the Japanese club they own 20 per cent of – and then helped him land the job at Celtic through their strong endorsement. Kevin Muscat, who succeeded him at Yokohama, and Patrick Kisnorbo, the first Aussie to coach in one of Europe’s top five leagues after he was shifted from Melbourne to CFG-owned ESTAC Troyes, have also benefitted from this pipeline, as have plenty of players.
Three members of Australia’s World Cup squad were from Melbourne City, including Mathew Leckie, who scored that brilliant goal against Denmark. Aaron Mooy got his big break in Europe through Manchester City. Indeed, his reported $16.7 million sale to Huddersfield Town more than covered their outlay. They also gave former Socceroo Daniel Arzani his chance, and while that didn’t work out, so many of Australia’s best young talents, from Jordy Bos to Marco Tilio to Alex Robertson, have tied themselves to the CFG empire because they believe it is their best developmental option.
And then there’s the women’s side, where Melbourne City’s heavy investment in their W-League program (as it was then known) was credited with lifting domestic standards across the board. Plus, three current Matildas – Mary Fowler, Hayley Raso and Alanna Kennedy – are on Man City’s books in the FA Women’s Super League.
Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano, chief commercial and operating officer Tom Glick, and director Simon Pearce, who is considered one of the most powerful people in Australian soccer.Credit:Getty
So far, so good – but it’s off the field where things get interesting. For all of City’s A-League success, and all the excellent community work they do, the club has failed to win hearts and minds in Melbourne. They are one of only three clubs to have not grown their men’s average attendances this season (5845), and that’s remarkable given the strength of their on-field product and the low base the competition was coming off after COVID.
This raises doubts about their understanding of what fans actually want – and they can be broadened out to the entire A-Leagues.
Simon Pearce, Melbourne City’s vice-president, sits on the board of Manchester City. Pearce is also a director of the Australian Professional Leagues, the club-run body that now operates the A-Leagues after the civil war that led to the breakaway from Football Australia and the exit of the Lowy family from the sport.
A-League club owners were a bit of a rabble until CFG’s arrival, and Pearce was instrumental in getting them all singing off the same hymn sheet, working towards the common goal of ousting Steven Lowy as FA chairman and gaining control of their own affairs.
Whether that was a good thing or not depends on your perspective, but the outcome was an independent A-League and the creation of the APL. Several key senior executives at the APL are ex-CFG employees, including Nick Garcia, the incoming chief operating officer. (Incidentally, FA chief executive James Johnson also worked for CFG as a senior vice-president, but now finds himself regularly butting heads with APL types.)
In late 2021, the APL clinched a $140 million private equity deal with Silver Lake, which, as it happens, owns 18 per cent of CFG. Pearce helped get that over the line, and is considered one of the most powerful figures in the sport, but rarely – if ever – speaks on the record to the media, and in turn, to fans.
There is no suggestion these CFG alumni have ulterior motives, despite what some conspiracy theorists in the game believe, or that they are anything other than very competent administrators – but insiders say they have brought with them a ruthlessly commercial mindset, and a strong belief that what has worked for them abroad will also work in Australia, despite the nuances of this market. It’s been underscored by the need to bring in more revenue urgently to ensure Silver Lake get a return on their investment.
This mindset undoubtably contributed to the mismanaged, ill-advised decision to sell the next three men’s and women’s grand finals to Destination NSW, which set in train the perfect storm of events that led to the violent AAMI Park pitch invasion, and the overall failure by the A-Leagues to capitalise in any way upon the buzz created by the Socceroos in Qatar.
Is the APL experiencing mere teething problems, post-independence, as Johnson has suggested – or has CFG pointed them in the entirely wrong direction? Only time will tell.
Melbourne Victory supporters once flew a banner at a derby which called CFG a “disease on football”. Sure, not everyone is comfortable with state-owned football clubs, much less one with tentacles in almost every continent. But as the EPL prepares to throw the book at them, it’s clear City’s modus operandi in Australia is just as contentious, and increasingly complicated.
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