Pep Guardiola waited patiently for his opportunity. When Manchester City were finally cleared of financial wrongdoing , he hit back in explosive fashion at what he sees as a campaign against the club.
The City boss took aim at the “whisperers” plotting behind the scenes , fired back at the snipes of rival bosses Jose Mourinho and Jurgen Klopp and lashed out the critics, who he felt have tarnished the club’s reputation.
“People said we were cheating, lying, many times,” he said at a press conference that was, at least in theory, to preview Wednesday’s meeting with Bournemouth.
But after City were cleared to play in the Champions League by an independent hearing , the Catalan instead used it to challenge those speaking out against the four-time Premier League champions.
“What happened in the last years, how many times people came to our club with this whispering on us. I’d love it to finish, I’d like to say these kind of people: ‘Okay, look in our eyes and if you want to say something, say it face-to-face, and then go on the pitch and play as rivals’,” he said.
“If after you beat us, I won’t hesitate, we’ll shake hands and congratulate them, but they lost off the pitch. They have to go on the pitch and try to beat us on, like sportsmen that we are.”
Six months after City were handed a two-year ban for Financial Fair Play irregularities by UEFA, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned the decision, stating breaches “were either not established or time-barred”.
While the club still have to pay a fine of €10 million (£9m/$11m) – reduced from an initial €30m (£25m/$33m) – for failing to co-operate with UEFA authorities, the verdict is a vindication of the club’s stance throughout that they had done nothing wrong.
“If we did something wrong we would accept our ban, for any departments – FIFA, UEFA, Premier League, the FA. We are here but we can defend ourselves,” Guardiola added.
It has been an uneasy time, with City facing a potential €200m (£180m/$220m) hit in lost revenues and the possibility of a major squad upheaval if they were to be kept away from European competition.
The same goes for their rivals, too, as they waited to hear whether a fifth-placed finish would be enough to claim a Champions League spot and major cash windfall of their own.
Uncertainty even surrounded their appeal when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Europe and shut down the CAS headquarters in Switzerland.
There was the potential for City to apply for a freeze to their two-year suspension, which would have allowed to them to play in next season’s Champions League pending the result of an appeal.
Eight of City’s nine closest Premier League rivals wrote a joint letter to CAS opposing that idea, but the club never asked for it. Their only request to CAS was for a speedy hearing so that they could clear their name, and it was eventually held via video-link.
On Monday morning, the result came through to senior executives just hours before the decision was announced to the world. Club hierarchy had remained extremely confident that they would be cleared, despite the potentially huge ramifications of a decision going the wrong way.
In the days ticking down to the judgment, Guardiola was repeatedly asked if he was concerned and never skipped a beat to portray his confidence. His coolness was not misplaced and, just over 24 hours later, he hit back at the snipers.
“I know for the elite clubs, Liverpool, [Manchester] United, Arsenal are not comfortable us being here. But we deserve to be here, we deserve to be stronger, year by year,” he told reporters as he continued to take aim at City’s rivals.
“We have incredible people working in this club to make this club better, to make our fans proud and we don’t have to ask permission to be there.
“When we lose I shake their hands and congratulate them, all the time we have done it, even if it’s unfairly in the Champions League. Guys accept it, we wanted to be here and we tried on the pitch.
“If you do not agree, knock on the door and speak to our chairman and chief executive and talk, don’t go whispering. We are going to do this – seven or eight clubs doing this.
“Go and do it on the pitch, not behind [closed doors]. In 10 years we’ve made a step forward. We invested a lot of money but we did it in the right things.
“We are not banned, we followed the rules for FFP as they decide [them]. If not we’d be banned.”
Publicly, too, some have been critical, and Guardiola was not afraid to hit back at them. He has a healthy rivalry with Klopp, with the Liverpool manager saying of the verdict: “I don’t think it was a good day for football”.
“Yesterday was a great day for football, not a bad day for football,” Guardiola hit back. “We showed we play with the same rules as all the clubs, all the elite clubs in Europe.”
Relations with Mourinho have become less frosty since his former rival has failed to come close to challenging the City manager during his time in England, but that did not stop the Tottenham boss labelling the outcome a “disgraceful decision”.
“Jose and all the managers should know we were damaged and that we should be apologised to,” Guardiola said of his former foe. “If we did something wrong, we will accept absolutely the decisions of UEFA, because you did something wrong, but we don’t expect Liverpool, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Wolves and all the clubs to defend [us], we can defend ourselves.
“We have the right to defend ourselves when we believe what we have done is correct, is right and three independent judges said this.”
La Liga president Javier Tebas, another long-term critic of City, questioned whether CAS was fit for purpose after the decision to lift the club’s Champions League ban.
“He’s another one, this guy. Senor Tebas must be so jealous of the Premier League and English football!” the former Barcelona boss said.
“He’s an incredible legal expert, from what I see. So next time maybe we’re going to ask them which court judges we will have to go to. He has to be a little bit worried and concerned about La Liga and focus on them.
“But normally these kind of people when the sentence is good for him it’s perfect – like what happens many times in Spain now – but when the sentence is against the problem is for others.
“Yeah, we’ll be in the Champions League next season, Senor Tebas, because what we did, we did it properly.”
Guardiola has used the uncertainty to help build an “us against the world” mentality in the months of the ban overhanging City.
Now, the club has won their biggest battle of the pitch, a fired-up City boss will have them believing they can beat anyone on it.