MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Manchester City’s ruthless run to the Premier League title can be traced back to the morning of Feb. 6, when the club was hit with more than 100 charges of financial wrongdoing.
City has not lost a game in any competition since then and is on track to win three trophies, having also advanced to the finals of the Champions League and the FA Cup.
But even if the accusations made by the Premier League appear to have marked a turning point in potentially the most successful season in the club’s history, they continue to cast a cloud over City’s years of dominance in English soccer.
City has been England’s leading club for more than a decade thanks to the lavish backing of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family. The club was bought by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan in 2008.
The latest title triumph was the club’s fifth in six years and seventh in the past 11.
On Sunday, as City celebrated with its fans at Etihad Stadium — named for a sponsor deal with the state airline in Abu Dhabi — there was no sign that the off-field issues were causing undue concern to supporters or players.
Instead, against a backdrop of blue smoke and explosions of ticker tape, the trophy was lifted to rapturous cheers and City manager Pep Guardiola spoke of his goal to lead the club to its first Champions League title against Inter Milan in Istanbul on June 10.
“We have the feeling we have done something exceptional in terms of the Premier League, but of course to be considered one of the greatest in Europe we have to win the Champions League,” said Guardiola, who has won 10 major trophies in seven years at the club. “Otherwise people will say our time here is not complete.”
City’s ongoing supremacy, however, is leading some to look again at the charges against it, with one column in a British newspaper last week asking whether it was “the greatest team or one built on years of cheating?”
City is accused of providing misleading information about its finances over a nine-year period from 2009-18 — a span in which it won three titles and signed some of the world’s best players, like Yaya Toure, Sergio Aguero and Kevin de Bruyne.
During that time, City changed the landscape of European soccer by becoming one of the most powerful teams in the sport. The club’s exorbitant spending has provided the foundation for the unprecedented success, and prompted questions about whether anyone can halt City’s dominance.
The Premier League charges came after a four-year investigation and the publication of leaked emails and documents, likely hacked, that were published starting in 2018 by German magazine Der Spiegel. The documents allegedly showed attempts to cover up the source of the club’s income in a bid to comply with Financial Fair Play rules operated by European soccer body UEFA and the Premier League.
UEFA created its rules after the global financial crisis 15 years ago to monitor revenue and spending of the clubs playing in European competitions like the Champions League.
The aim was financial stability in the industry by ensuring that spending was balanced with earnings, which included not inflating sponsor deals with companies linked to club owners. Critics said the rules protected storied clubs with huge fan bases from challenges by emerging rivals with wealthy owners, such as state-backed Man City and Qatari-owned Paris Saint-Germain.
If found guilty by the Premier League investigation, City faces punishments as severe as a deduction of points or even expulsion from English soccer’s top division.
City already had a two-year ban from European competitions overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2020, after a UEFA-appointed panel found “serious breaches” of financial rules from 2012-16.
But whereas CAS said some allegations could not be judged because of a statute of limitations in UEFA rules, no such time limits hamper the Premier League investigation. CAS also fined City 10 million euros (then $11.3 million) for failing to cooperate with UEFA investigators.
One internal email highlighted by Der Spiegel suggested City favored a legal fight with soccer authorities, noting that senior management “would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them (UEFA) for the next 10 years” than consent to being punished.
The Premier League has laid out about 80 alleged breaches of its financial rules and has accused City of 30 more, which relate to its supposed failure to co-operate with the investigation.
In response, City said in a statement in February it had “irrefutable evidence” to put the matter to rest “once and for all.”
Guardiola provided a more impassioned response when addressing the charges days after they were announced.
“My first thought is we are already being condemned,” he said before adding he was “fully convinced that we will be innocent.”
City’s last loss came the day before the charges were announced, when it was beaten by Tottenham 1-0 and was five points behind long-time leader Arsenal.
In the face of all this adversity, City has powered through to another title and could become only the second English team to win the three main trophies in a single season.
Whether it can clear its name off the field, however, remains to be seen.