On Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned a two-year ban from European football and €30 million fine that were imposed upon Manchester City for breaching UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations and failing to cooperate with an investigation by the governing body of European football’s Club Financial Control Body (CFCB). City will instead be fined €10m for the failure to cooperate, but will be free to play in UEFA competitions.
We do not know exactly why the ban was overturned — that will become more clear in the next few days when CAS publishes its full written award — but the statement released alluded to the fact that some alleged breaches were “not established” and others were “time-barred.”
What does it all mean? For example, is it accurate to say that City have been exonerated? And is this the end of FFP? Let’s start at the beginning.
What exactly were Man City accused of doing?
They breached FFP rules — legislation that limits the losses a club can sustain over a certain period — in 2014 and were punished, reaching a settlement agreement with UEFA. However, the case was reopened following the November 2018 “Football Leaks” revelations published in the German magazine “Der Spiegel.”
Among other things, “Football Leaks” documents alleged that City’s owners, the Abu Dhabi United Group, did not just get related parties, such as the airline Etihad, to sign inflated sponsorship deals — which the original 2014 investigation already established — but they routed money to said parties and then received that cash back as “sponsorship,” effectively cooking the books.
Does Monday’s judgement exonerate them?
It means they will not be banned from European competition; it does not mean they did not do anything wrong. The wording of CAS’s release says some breaches were “not established” while others were “time-barred” which suggests the statute of limitations — five years according to Article 37 of the 2019 edition of the procedural rules governing the CFCB — might have applied.
City signed their settlement agreement on May 16, 2014; UEFA’s formal investigation was launched on March 7, 2019 and referred to the Independent Adjudicatory Chamber of the CFCB on May 16, 2019. The ban came on Feb. 14, 2020.
Why did UEFA take so long to bring the case and why did they persist if it was outside the statute of limitations?
That is tough to answer. If they had managed to bring their case in five months — from when the documents were first published to when the statute of limitations expired — maybe the outcome would have been different. Instead, from start to finish, it took them 15 months. Or maybe not: like I said we don’t know what allegations fell into the “time breach” category and which fell into the “not established” category.
It is also likely UEFA argued that, given the severity of the allegations and the fact that new evidence was being introduced, the statute of limitations should not apply and that was the conclusion reached by CFCB’s independent adjudicatory chamber. As to why CAS felt differently, well, we will need to wait for them to publish the full award.
There’s another aspect here. Rather than going down the CFCB route, UEFA could have pursued the case via its Disciplinary Committee. There would still be a statute of limitations, but the process would likely have been swifter and possibly more targeted, though the potential punishment would have been less severe.
You wrote before that it would be messy if we did not get a clean verdict, but rather one based on technicalities. Is that what this is?
It looks that way to some, but it depends on what allegations were “not established” and which ones were “time-barred.” An analogy would be that, if you commit a crime and a court does not clear you but rather says it was too long ago, the stain is still there, even though you cannot be prosecuted.
That’s why people like Javier Tebas, head of the Spanish league, were quick to blame CAS on Monday: “We have to reassess whether [it’s] the appropriate body to which to appeal institutional decisions… CAS is not up to standard,” he said.
On the other hand, until we see the full award, Tebas’ comments smack of someone saying: “I don’t like the verdict, so the court is rubbish.”
Who makes up CAS?
It is basically an arbitration service with a list of “judges” — mostly lawyers with extensive experience in sport — of whom three are picked to hear a case. One is appointed by the plaintiff (UEFA), one by the defendant (City) and one by CAS itself. The parties agree to be bound by the verdict.
Is this the “death of FFP,” as some are saying?
That is simply dramatic hyperbole and nonsense. First off, it is silly to draw conclusions like that until we get the facts, i.e. the written award. Maybe the CFCB argued their case poorly or, as City suggested, failed to follow procedures.
Second, FFP is not just about punishing City. It was put into place in 2011 to turn European club football into a viable, investable industry and it did that: Before FFP, clubs on aggregate lost almost €2 billion per year; in the last two years, they made a profit.
Now that there is greater stability and commercial viability, however, FFP needs reform. Not so much for the super clubs like City, but to those hoping to join them in that elite group. UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin admitted as much when I interviewed him two weeks ago.
“Now we need to go from Financial Fair Play to achieving a better competitive balance,” he said. “We are trying to find ways to allow clubs to invest more, but at the same time ensuring that underprivileged clubs aren’t abandoned and left alone. We are discussing concrete measures, but it’s too early to share. We need to approach this differently going forward, but it doesn’t mean that the way [we] were doing this before was not right.”
What could those measures be?
I expect they will relax FFP so that clubs can spend more in the short-term, as long as there is financial backing and a plan to reach break-even in the medium term. But regardless of Monday’s news, it is pretty obvious that these restrictions need to be in place and not least because clubs themselves want them: No owner enjoys losing money in perpetuity.
Back to Man City, who feel targeted and the victims of a smear campaign. Does this judgement change that?
Certain facts remain, like the one that they breached FFP rules and agreed a settlement in 2014 that was, effectively, a plea bargain (so too did PSG, for that matter.) That is not going to change and perceptions of that are not going to change.
If the written reasons reveal that the evidence was flimsy or non-existent or, worse, politically motivated, the club will have a point. If, on the other hand, they have been let off on a technicality like the statute of limitations expiring, that is another matter. In that case, not much will change, just as was the case regarding perceptions toward PSG when CAS backed them in 2019 on a procedural matter.
And, by the way, the fact that City were found guilty of not cooperating with the investigation does not reflect well on them either. Again, we will see what the written award says when it is published.