What the Man City Ruling Means for Sportswashing

Updated: Jun 29, 2020

Greenpeace Protests Gazprom in the UEFA Champions League - EPA/Laurent Gillieron

Shockwaves were propelled across European football on Valentine’s Day, as Manchester City, the richest and most successful club in English football for the past decade, were disqualified from participating in the UEFA Champions League for the coming two seasons. This ruling came after the club broke UEFA’s FFP (Financial Fair Play) rules by inflating sponsorship income. The alleged misconduct embodies the corruption that has come to plague clubs like Manchester City, whose owners have used the club for the purpose of sportswashing. Sportswashing is the attempt to host, own or participate in sporting events or franchises for the purpose of improving the perception of a nation or organisation. The act of sportswashing is particularly beneficial to regimes and corporations whose actions are morally dubious.

Manchester City was acquired by the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, who immediately pumped millions upon millions into the club – famously signing Brazilian striker Robinho from Real Madrid for £32.5m shortly after the takeover. From there, Manchester City became a force in football, winning their first league title since 1968, in 2012. All the while, investing millions more each year in internationally acclaimed players, managers and facilities. As a result, the opinion of Manchester City, and ergo, the ownership, has improved.

When one thinks of Manchester City, they think of sky-blue shirts, incredible football and a flashy stadium in cosmopolitan Manchester. Thus, when people think of the royal family of Abu Dhabi, they think of Manchester City, and that positive feeling carries over; if they attach themselves to such a wonderful product, how bad can they be? Right? Wrong.

Abu Dhabi is an Emirate within the nation of the UAE – meaning the Abu Dhabi acts as an autonomous region within the nation. Each Emirate has its own wealthy ruler, of which Abu Dhabi is the wealthiest. However, this wealth is not born of honest, liberal capitalism. It is born of slavery & oil. Abu Dhabi is listed on the world freedom index as ‘not free’, it is condemned by humanitarian organisations for its barbaric treatment of citizens and effectively runs as a theocratic oligarchy. Forced slavery, torture and kidnappings are not uncommon – with ongoing investigations by the United Nations into the Emirate’s exploitation of Indian migrant workers for economic purposes.

It is clear, the motivation behind the Abu Dhabi Group’s billions of pounds of investment into Manchester City is to improve its image through sportswashing Western viewers. Besides, City are not alone in this endeavour: Paris Saint-Germain are owned by the Qatari state via Qatar Sports Investments, and Gazprom, a Russian state-owned oil company, invests heavily into FC Schalke 04 in Germany, as well as sponsoring the UEFA Champions League with half-time ads and pitch-side advertising hoardings displaying their company name. Football is the lens through which despotic Twenty-First Century regimes pay to be seen.

So how does Manchester City’s barring from European competitions affect that?

Little is known about the exact practices that Manchester City’s ownership were dealing in. It is clear, though, that they were utilising some form of ‘creative accounting’. Put simply, City were cooking the books. This is in an effort to curtail the UEFA imposed Financial Fair Play laws – ironically, introduced to prohibit this exact kind of unabated investment into clubs. In essence, the FFP laws state that owners of football clubs can only invest a certain amount per season and that all other expenditure by the club must be money raised from, for lack of a better word, 'legitimate' sources (i.e. gate receipts, merchandising, competition prize money etc.). However, Manchester City sought to exploit a loophole in the FFP laws - which declared that a form of legitimate fundraising was from sponsorship income. This can be from shirt sponsorships, stadium naming rights, or anything else you’re willing to sell off for advertising space.

Here's where the trickery begins...

Manchester City’s shirts, stadium and training ground are all sponsored by Etihad Airways, an Abu Dhabi airline company founded by Ahmed bin Daif Al Nayhan, a relative of the Al Nayhan ruling family of Abu Dhabi, who owns Manchester City. It is alleged, that Manchester City had been using their sponsorship from Etihad Airways as a means to backchannel the ownership’s money into the club under the guise of inflated sponsorships – thus making the revenue legitimate & not subject to FFP laws.

This revelation led to the two-year European ban and a £32m fine from UEFA. But where does it leave sportswashing? Is it dead?

No. It’s not dead. In fact, it’s not even certain the ban will be upheld. On the board of UEFA, sits Nasser Al-Khelafi, the Chairman of Qatar Sports Investment. The precedent set by this ban against City, could equally be used against PSG. Ergo, it’s in Khelafi’s interests to see this ruling disappear.

It could mean that sportswashing becomes slightly more underhanded, in order to avoid detection from the authorities. Though, too underhanded and it relinquishes the entire point, which is to promote a favourable image of the ownership.

What is certain, is that this ruling is a giant leap forward in the fight to purify football of toxic political self-glorification. It has shone a light on sportswashing and will continue to do so the more it drags on. Should Manchester City’s stock take too much of a hit, we may see Etihad Airways pull their sponsorship and the Abu Dhabi Group withdraw their investment. Two years out of football’s premier club competition will hurt a brand. Trust me, I know, I’m an Arsenal fan. They won’t have the same flashy players, they won’t keep their manager, they certainly won’t be able to play the same way they do now.

Paradoxically, with one of football’s best teams falling apart, the overall sport will be improved. Sure, this won’t end Putin’s interest in promoting Russia as a lovely country, or Qatar’s interest in trying to tell the world they’re not a slave state, whilst building stadiums for the 2022 World Cup with slaves. It won’t. But this is the first step in what can be the end of this mess.

What sports fans need to realise is that while Pep Guardiola is a cool character and an excellent manager, his pay slip is signed with the blood of Abu Dhabi’s who are oppressed and often killed by a tyrannical regime. A tyrannical regime whose image his work serves to better.

Sportswashing is a political project, a footballing indignity & an international disgrace. Let’s hope it’s eradicated sooner rather than later.

The Politician Independent Newspaper, created in 2020