LONDON – In a season that could end with four trophies, Manchester City’s biggest victory hasn’t been secured by Kevin De Bruyne or Raheem Sterling.
City fans are celebrating a squad of lawyers outsmarting UEFA’s judicial machinery in extra time and saving the club from a devastating two-year Champions League ban.
“Absolutely vindicated,” supporter Dante Friend said outside City’s stadium on Monday shortly after the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled largely in the club’s favor in the Financial Fair Play case. “We can prove where the money has come from over the years.”
Money coming from companies such as Etihad Airways, the Abu Dhabi-owned carrier that took on the stadium naming rights after a member of the emirate’s ruling family bought the club in 2008.
The wealth of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan transformed City from merely existing in the English Premier League -- after dropping into the third tier at the end of the millennium -- into a team that overhauled brash all-conquering neighbor Manchester United.
But the spending power that produced four Premier League titles in the last decade -- their first English titles since 1968 -- had to remain within UEFA’s limits.
No owner, not even one backed with the wealth of a nation, could spend freely on players. The revenue had to be generated from fans, broadcasters and sponsors. And City managed to attract an array of Abu Dhabi companies -- from the airline to financial and communications firms -- to sponsor this Abu Dhabi-owned team.
UEFA’s judiciary did find sponsorship revenue was inflated from companies linked to the ownership. The new investigation was only launched after the club’s internal correspondence was obtained by German outlet Der Spiegel through means that enraged City. But the CAS media release on Monday proclaimed: “Manchester City FC did not disguise equity funding as sponsorship contributions.”
It was just the headline City wanted, apart from the second part of the CAS announcement which showed the club was not completely exonerated: “But did fail to cooperate with the UEFA authorities.”
It is short of obstruction of justice but still led to a hefty fine of 10 million euros ($11 million), albeit reduced from the initial 30 million euros sanction imposed by UEFA’s judicial branch. It is still the biggest sanction for an English club since City was fined 30 million euros in the original 2014 FFP case for overspending.
Doubts will persist over whether City escaped the Champions League ban on technicalities. CAS arbitrators concluded some allegations were “either not established or time-barred.”
Only the publication of the written reasons by CAS will help to explain how they reached the verdict and perhaps why UEFA launched the case when its own regulations place a five-year limit on prosecuting any rule breaches.
Coming after high-profile court defeats on FFP, including over Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain's finances, UEFA's ability to prosecute cases is now under the microscope.
UEFA has only said it notes the verdict while maintaining it still backs the principles of Financial Fair Play. The regulation was introduced a decade ago by then-president Michel Platini during the global financial crisis to prevent clubs racking up big losses and going out of business.
“I think there will be a lot of dismay on the part of the other clubs,” said William Gaillard, who was an adviser to Platini at UEFA. “When you have an owner who basically is in football because he wants to make a legitimate profit, to be faced with a competitor with the deepest pockets in the world and endless money is incredibly discouraging. If I were a legitimate investor, I would divest, from football. You can’t compete.”
UEFA has been exploring changes to FFP now that it has made clubs more sustainable. Clubs across Europe made a combined profit of 140 million euros in 2018 compared to losses of 1.163 billion euros in 2009 before FFP was implemented.
But now countries across the continent could be entering another recession, caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has wiped out revenue from clubs as stadiums have been shut to fans.
“This could be an opportunity for perhaps UEFA to save face,” football finance lecturer Kieran Maguire said, “by coming up with a revised set of rules which make it more palatable to clubs with sovereign wealth funds as owners to become involved with the game and to invest larger sums.”
That would suit City fans just fine. The Premier League trophy has been surrendered to Liverpool. But the Community Shield and League Cup have already been collected this season. There’s an FA Cup semifinal with Arsenal on Saturday. Then the Champions League resumes in August from its pandemic-enforced break, with City leading Real Madrid 2-1 in the round of 16.
With fans prohibited from attending games because of the virus, it will be a rare occasion when the Champions League anthem will not be booed at Etihad Stadium.
The CAS verdict only reinforces City fans’ grievances with European football’s governing body.
“We put the banner together to say that UEFA are ‘muppets’ and that was funded by fans,” said Friend, the supporter outside the stadium on Monday morning. “We were absolutely 100% right in what we said.”
UEFA has a lot of explaining to do. Meanwhile, City could end an extraordinary season by lifting UEFA's biggest club prize for the first time: The European Cup.
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