Just a day after Manchester City claimed its second straight Premier League title and a fourth in eight years, its next challenge presented itself. This time around, however, the confrontation was not with some other, overmatched soccer team. Rather, it was with UEFA itself, the governing body of soccer in Europe.
On Monday, the New York Times reported that UEFA had been investigating City for financial impropriety for months after a Football Leaks dump revealed an apparent scheme by the club’s executives to hide cash injections from its owner, the royal family of Abu Dhabi. Under UEFA’s financial regulations, clubs can’t run structural deficits or take in more than a capped amount of investment from ownership, a 2011 rule dubbed Financial Fair Play. City’s payments from Abu Dhabi reportedly far exceed that and were laundered in the books as sponsorship income from Etihad, the national airline of Abu Dhabi.
Thursday, these charges were confirmed when UEFA announced that its investigative chamber had asked the adjudicatory chamber of its internal regulators for a ruling, recommending City’s expulsion from European competition for at least one season.
City lashed out at both stories. When the Football Leaks disclosures were made, it decried a smear campaign against its good name with illegally obtained documents, without actually denying the charges. Thursday, it came out stronger still.
“The decision contains mistakes, misinterpretations and confusions fundamentally borne out of a basic lack of due process,” City wrote in a fiery statement, “and there remain significant unresolved matters raised by Manchester City FC as part of what the club has found to be a wholly unsatisfactory, curtailed, and hostile process.”
“The accusation of financial irregularities remains entirely false and … ignores a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence provided by Manchester City FC,” the statement added.
City hinted that it will appeal any punishment, likely taking it all the way up to the Court of Arbitration for Sport. But UEFA surely believes it has a strong case, knowing full well the scrutiny any punitive ruling would face.
Because the stakes are enormous for both sides. City has made no secret of its aspiration to win the Champions League, after establishing itself as England’s best club in this decade. During that time, the Abu Dhabi royal family has spent $1 billion on players, and more still on stadium and facility improvements and world-class staff. It completely transformed a well-supported but pedestrian club that had languished in the second-tier Championship as recently as 2002.
City’s objective now is to be the best in the world. And as such, it represents a prestige play for Abu Dhabi, a kind of very expensive PR campaign.
You can understand, on some level, why City would feel aggrieved. There are lots of very rich clubs in soccer, all of whom are partaking in the financial arms race for the best talent. And those clubs don’t seem to face as much scrutiny.
Then again, if City is found to have committed these infractions, it will be a repeat offender. In 2014, it settled for a $60 million fine and some transfer restrictions after it broke the same Financial Fair Play rules. At the time, Qatar-owned Paris Saint-Germain, the other big nouveaux riches in elite club soccer, was fined as well, and the Parisians have had just as hard of a time staying out of trouble.
But there’s a lot riding on this for UEFA too. This case could prove a litmus test of sorts on its power and its capacity to enforce its own rules. Because if FFP is unenforceable, then so, really, is everything else. If City is guilty and gets away with it through sheer defiance, a precedent will be set of clubs flouting rules and making a mockery of the governing body’s authority.
And it would only reinforce the notion that the biggest, richest clubs are really the ones in charge, empowered by their persistent threat to simply break away from UEFA and keep the Champions League riches they generate to themselves.
This case, then, is both of money and about money. Can City really spend as it pleases, if that is indeed what it tried to do? And if it did and it can, does that mean the big money in soccer has gotten so large that the juggernaut clubs are effectively too wealthy for their regional governing body to check? Are City and its ilk too big to fail? And does that suggest that UEFA need its big clubs more than they need UEFA?
Because if UEFA can’t impose its authority on Financial Fair Play, what’s the point of it?
And, if that’s true, what is even the point of UEFA anymore?
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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