City’s management knew exactly where to look. One after another, companies linked to Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates signed on as City sponsors. The national flag carrier Etihad Airways would soon see its name emblazoned across City sky-blue shirts. The stadium where it played its home games would soon be renamed for the company, too. Etisalat, a telecommunications company that is majority owned by the Emirati government, joined up, too, as would several others.
The deals helped finance the team’s sudden rise — City won the Premier League title on the final day of the 2012 season, and then added another two years later — but they did not cover all of the team’s spending, and that caught the eye of soccer’s financial regulators. In 2014, Manchester City and another Gulf-backed club with big ambitions, the Qatar-owned Paris St.-Germain, agreed to a settlement with UEFA after being found to have been in breach of the governing body’s financial regulations.
A multimillion-dollar fine was imposed, an outcome palatable to City, but the chief investigator in the case was so angered by the settlement that he quit on the day it was announced. City, meanwhile, went right on spending: on players, on coaches and on lawyers.
In 2018, months after Manchester City’s latest star signing, Guardiola, clinched the first of his four league titles at the club, the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel published a four-part series that it said exposed the foundations underpinning City’s rise.
Citing scores of leaked documents and emails, Der Spiegel rolled out one revelation after another. In one article, it reported that one of City’s former managers had reportedly been paid more than his annual salary — almost $2 million — for a four-day consultancy contract with another soccer team, one based in Abu Dhabi and also owned by Sheikh Mansour. In another, it said that Etihad, City’s main sponsor, was paying only a fraction of a sponsorship deal said to be worth £67.5 million ($81 million) per season. A vast majority of the money, the article said, was covered by other entities linked to City’s owners or the government of the U.A.E.
“We mustn’t show the partner supplement if it is going outside the club,” City’s head of finance, Andrew Widdowson, wrote in one leaked email. Manchester City has consistently refused to comment on the content of the leaks because it was “criminally obtained.”