Why the secrecy around Man City’s FFP case with Premier League is so damaging

On Jan. 16, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters faced a British parliamentary committee and addressed arguably the biggest disciplinary case involving the most successful club in the recent history of the English game: the 115 charges against Manchester City that, if proven, could see the club stripped of titles, relegated, fined, sued, tarred, feathered and made to sit in a corner until kingdom come.

“There is a date set for that proceeding [against Manchester City] but unfortunately I can’t tell you when that is, but that is progressing,” Masters said. (Fast forward to 1:26 to see this segment.)

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Now, it’s pretty obvious that the Overton window of what we’ll tolerate from those who govern us (or, in this case, the things we love, like football) has shifted, but think about this for a minute. Manchester City are facing a decision by a three-person independent panel that could have seismic repercussions on the English game and the public — who, lest we forget, pay for the whole shebang by buying tickets, merchandise, TV subscriptions, et cetera — doesn’t even have the right to know when the freaking thing is?

And it’s not just that: we also don’t know who will sit on the panel and judge City’s case (though we do know that this guy, like some legal Nick Fury, gets to assemble it and can put himself on it, if he so chooses). We get to find that out after the hearing.

Oh, and while we’re at it, consider that the charges cover alleged breaches of rules dating back to 2009 — before anybody in the current City squad, other than third-choice keeper Scott Carson, even turned professional — and that before they were brought 11 months ago, the Premier League had spent four years investigating the case.

And, incidentally, after announcing in March 2019 (four months after the investigation actually began) that City were being investigated, the Premier League (and City) went years without telling anyone what was going on, or even if the investigation had been dropped. (We only found out in summer 2021 that it wasn’t dropped because Her Majesty’s Court of Appeal decided it was OK to let us know.

Does this seem anything but absurd to you? Shouldn’t justice be swift as well as, you know, just?

To be clear, I don’t blame Masters here. In fact, given how clear he made it that he’s under a gag order — moments before confirming that a date had been set, he pointedly said, of the charges facing City, that he “cannot talk about [them] at all” — I’m grateful to him for even volunteering the fact that a date had been set. After all, he was neither under oath nor, as far as we can tell from the footage, was he under duress in the room.

No, Masters is a victim here because lawyers and legislation have created a situation where nobody involved — not at the Premier League, not at Manchester City — can say a darn peep about the case, when it might be heard or even by whom. All for what? For fear of then finding another lawyer who can convince a judge that by speaking out, they might somehow prejudice the case, and we ended up in whatever the independent commission equivalent of a mistrial is. Or, worse, we get real judges and courts involved (again).

I’m sure some lawyer on one of the two sides concocted some reason why all of this needs to be so deep underground. This is an accounting and reporting dispute involving a league that will soon be subject to an independent regulator, and a club that also happens to be a member of that league (and is subject to its rules). Both exist as entertainment business and social entities because of the passion (and money) of tens of millions of fans.

Why the closed-door hearing, as if this was some sort of extraordinary rendition interrogation? Why the mystery over the date — heck, Masters spoke last week, which means that for all we know, they already had the hearing? Why the anonymity of the panel: do they seriously think someone will tamper with them like in some 1970s mob film?

We don’t know, because nobody can talk about it. All you get is endless regurgitation of facts from the “Football Leaks” investigation and the UEFA investigation — some of which apply to this case, some of which don’t, some of which will be judged by the same legal standard, some of which won’t.

Pep Guardiola, City’s most successful manager, at least had the luxury of asking his employers directly. “When they are accused of something I ask them, ‘Tell me about that.’ They explain and I believe them,” he said back in May 2022.

And if they’re lying to you, Pep?

“If you lie to me, the day after I am not here,” he said. “I will be out and I will not be your friend any more.”

All of this foments a lack of faith in our institutions and fosters endless conspiracy theories at the extremes. For some at one end it’s that City are cheats, their success is tainted and the Premier League is weak and spineless because it let them get away with it for so long. For those at the other end, it’s that City are victims of a witch hunt engineered by England’s traditional legacy clubs — you know, Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United — who force their puppets at the Premier League to make a spurious case against them.

Most reasonable folk are somewhere in the middle because we’d like to make up our own minds, like Pep did. We’d like the rules explained to us in a way that we understand and we’d like to know what evidence there is that City broke them, as well as City’s rebuttal. We won’t be the ones deciding, fine, because we’re not trained in the supposedly mystical finer points of the law, but it would be nice to know what this case is about, how it will be judged, when, where and by whom.

But no. We won’t be afforded that luxury. And frankly, that will make it that little bit harder to accept the verdict, whatever it may be. If and when it ever comes out, of course.

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