Few spectators inside Istanbul’s Atatürk Olympic Stadium understood what Manchester City’s win in the 2023 UEFA Champions League Final meant more than Micah Richards.
“I’ve been there as a kid and seen all the hard work that goes in behind the scenes,” he told reporters before Saturday’s match, which saw Man City defeat Inter Milan 1-0 to capture its first European title.
“As a town, as a community, they’ve done absolutely everything to ensure that they win the Champions League.”
But as impressive as City’s achievement is, it arrives under the shadow of looming Financial Fair Play allegations — potential violations from its foreign ownership that date back almost to the start of the club’s modern era.
“If they are proven guilty, we can have that conversation then,” says Richards, “but until now, they said they’re innocent, and we’ve got to trust that.”
Richards — now an analyst for CBS Sports — has had a unique vantage point to the club’s ascension. Coming up through its youth system, he made his first-team debut in 2005 and was there when Abu Dhabi United Group purchased the club in 2008.
Since then, Manchester City has become a model of success in modern professional soccer, winning seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups, and now only the second continental treble in English soccer history — the first since city rival Manchester United accomplished the feat in 1999.
“It would be the pinnacle of everything we have set out to achieve and would mark the end of an extraordinary 2022-23 campaign,” City Football Group COO Roel de Vries told Front Office Sports in a statement before the Final.
The Master Plan
CFG — the spiritual successor to ADUG — has built up a reputation for success not just in Manchester but around the world. During the 2020-21 season, the ownership group had four concurrent domestic champions: Manchester, NYCFC, Melbourne City FC, and Mumbai City FC.
Manchester City has set the example for all others with three straight EPL titles and a historic treble.
“We’re very clear about the type of football that we want to play,” CFG Chief Football Operations Officer Omar Berrada told FOS in 2022. “The types of players that we bring in to play that system, the coach that we have in Manchester and in our other clubs as well, all aspire to play a very attractive type of football.”
“The success we have enjoyed over the last few years… is testament to the way we play, the club’s technical and tactical vision, and the way we operate as an organization,” says De Vries.
It’s also led to big business for Man City.
The club says that it has experienced record global retail sales from its newly released home shirt. Its media arm, City Studios, is producing more than $225 million worth of content, and its YouTube channel ranks first among the world’s soccer clubs in monthly active users, per the club.
A Fair Financial Playing Field
One of the biggest questions surrounding Manchester City, however, is if its business is truly able to sustain the enormous amount it’s spent on soccer.
In 2020, the club was banned from European competition for two seasons for breaches of UEFA Financial Fair Play rules, a ruling quickly overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
But in February, Man City was charged with over 100 counts of FFP violations by the Premier League for each season between 2009-10 and 2017-18. If found guilty, the club could face fines, point reductions, or even expulsion from the league.
City can likely now afford its champion roster of expensive players, but that may not have always been the case. Abu Dhabi’s injection of cash helped lift the club from its decades of mediocrity, but the question is if the club spent outside its means.
CFG may have even inspired a new wave of Middle Eastern spending in soccer, headlined by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund’s ventures with Newcastle United and its native Saudi Pro League, which recently brought the talents of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, and other aging superstars to the country.
With all that money flying around, it’s entirely possible that Manchester City, willfully or not, spent outside its income in its formative years.
Richards — who has been loyal to the club for his entire career — recognizes that the team will need to be held responsible if it did violate FFP rules.
“I think if they are found guilty there should be a harsh punishment. Of course, there should. I’m a big advocate of that,” he said.
But until the process plays out, Richards and the rest of the Citizens around the world will get to bask in the glory of their club’s crowning achievement.