It is hard to make sense of the strange dance Uefa and Manchester City are conducting over financial fair play. Two impenetrable organisations are locked in battle and the result will determine whether European football’s ruling body can exercise any control over the spending of the clubs that operate under its auspices.
This week the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) published details of City’s appeal against the decision of Uefa’s investigatory chamber to refer the club to the adjudicatory chamber over breaches of financial rules. CAS rejected City’s entreaties in November on the blindingly obvious grounds that there was no verdict or punishment to question. The adjudicatory chamber is yet to hand down its judgement. The documents provide a record of the arguments put before the Lausanne-based court four months ago.
Rewinding to the nub of the case, Uefa’s investigation began after the German magazine Der Spiegel published a cache of City’s internal emails three years ago. The hacked communications suggested that the club had misled the authorities over sponsorship that was supposed to have come from Etihad, the state airline of Abu Dhabi, but is alleged to have been provided by Sheikh Mansour, the owner and ruler of the Emirate.
City deny any wrongdoing but based their arguments to CAS on Uefa’s procedural mistakes in preparing the case. They also demanded damages for what they saw as “leaks” to the media by Uefa, which indicated that the club would be banned from the Champions League for at least a season.
This is where it gets interesting. Uefa were bullish about their position back in May when the investigatory chamber filed their charges but time has dragged on without an adjudicatory chamber ruling being declared. There has been a growing suspicion – even among Uefa insiders – that some sort of backroom deal was being arranged whereby City would escape a ban from European competition. The publication of CAS’s documents implies that this is not on the agenda. CAS makes its decisions public unless both parties agree to keep the details confidential. The paperwork of the Paris Saint-Germain case last year – where Uefa seemed to lose its nerve – was never released. Allowing the bitter exchanges with City into the open hints that a showdown is inevitable.
City’s complaints about the leaks raised eyebrows, too. Leaks, unattributed briefings – call them what you will – are common in football. All parties practise these dark arts and use them to set the agenda or heap pressure on their enemies. It is hard to take anyone who is sanctimonious about the use of leaks too seriously. In November, there were reports that a deal had been agreed and City would be hit with a fine rather than an expulsion from the Champions League. It is unlikely – given the mood in Uefa – that this came from Nyon.
Everybody likes to get their version of the tale out, ideally without leaving any fingerprints. Most football journalist could reel off countless occasions when the story for general consumption varied greatly with what was said in private when the Dictaphones were switched off.
It is still hard to predict what sentence the adjudicatory chamber will hand down. The decision has been made and if the worst-case scenario happens for City, there will likely be a number of time-consuming appeals. They already have one strike to their name at CAS but the club will probably challenge any ban any way they can, including through the Swiss courts.
If, as Uefa contend, City have transgressed against their financial fair play rules, then the Premier League will be forced to act, too. The same regulations will have been breached domestically. There is no real appetite to sanction the club but it would be inevitable. A points deduction would be the obvious option.
At that juncture it might make sense for City to back down, swallow their pride and take the punishment. In a season where they are 22 points behind Liverpool with no prospect of catching their rivals, being demoted a few places down the table would not be the worst thing, especially if they are suspended from the Champions League for next season. This would be painful but would have little long-term effect. Dragging everyone through the courts might end up significantly more damaging.
Uefa will make their decision clear soon. If the ruling body are feeling vindictive, they will announce it around City’s Champions League knockout round tie with Real Madrid. Real are leading lights in the old-money clique that have been ranged against the Etihad since the Abu Dhabi takeover. They would appreciate such spitefulness at the Bernabeu and Real would not be the only big club smirking if City and their nouveau riche ways get their comeuppance.
None of this is very edifying. At times like this the game feels dirty.