With UEFA, it seems that all rules are made to be broken… if you can afford it.
By Will Guthrie
Here we are again, and sadly, it’s no great surprise. In the wake of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturning the penalty handed down to Manchester City FC this week, it’s hard to argue that the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) has even a shred of credibility left. In 2019, it was announced that UEFA would hold a formal investigation into allegations that City had breached Financial Fair Play (FFP) Regulations, following leaked emails and documents by a whistle-blower being published in German magazine, Der Spiegel. The resulting £24.8 million fine and two-year ban from the lucrative UEFA Champions League and Europa League were to serve as a reminder that the governing body was serious about enforcing rules that, in theory, are meant for the good of all professional clubs. Unfortunately, they were dealt a massive blow this week after City’s successful appeal against the punishment resulted in nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
Before going further, it’s important to understand two things; FFP rules are a great idea on paper and this is not a win for the little guy. Yes, the rules prevent clubs from spending more than they earn and going into administration in theory. In practice, it’s a different story. All FFP serves to do is maintain the status quo. Of course mega clubs such as Manchester United FC and Barcelona FC are in favour of it, they’re already printing money, it limits the number of challengers they have to deal with. It also serves to place scrutiny on any new money to the top table, specifically the petrostate clubs Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain FC (PSG). This is not a win for the underdog, this is a win for one group of billionaires against another. It’s also a significant slap to the face of smaller clubs such as Leicester City FC and Wolverhampton Wanderers FC, who are toeing the line and are now in danger of missing out on a spot in the Champions League. City have been cleared of any wrongdoing as “most of the alleged breaches reported were either not established or time-barred” the CAS found. So, while seemingly a technicality, City are in the clear, though fined £8.9 million for their attitude in failing to co-operate with the investigation. Having said all of that, one wonders why there would be a need to be so truculent if there was nothing to hide.
For their part, City have argued that this is just an attempt to drag their name through the mud. Although the aforementioned point stands regarding their embarrassing light ‘penalty’, their seemingly sole offense is that they’ve failed to co-operate with an investigation conducted by the governing body of European Football; that in and of itself probably best underlines this entire situation. UEFA’s credibility is in tatters. Giving a penalty for a lack of co-operation comes across as an effort to save face, it’s a petty consolation by an organisation that’s powerless against those it governs. It’s difficult to enforce rules on people who have far more money than you do, it’s even more difficult when you bungle things the way UEFA have managed to. When justice goes to the highest bidder or the deepest pockets, it’s crucial you’re on the ball, and while a 2-year ban may have been harsh, a slap on the wrists for a bad attitude is hardly going to dissuade anyone from future infringements, especially when they can afford better lawyers than you. To put this ‘punishment’ into context, imagine finding $20 in an old jacket, that’s more or less what City are going to be fined. You can almost hear their laughter in the halls of the Etihad Stadium from here. There’s scarcely any point in having rules if you’re unable to enforce them. Some of the alleged offenses were more than 5 years old, meaning they could not be ruled on, which exposes a certain naivety about the way UEFA have gone about this. It seems UEFA have a fundamental misunderstanding of the 5-year rule as it applies to the CAS. To put it bluntly, they look like amateurs. Following their failed attempt to similarly charge PSG with breaking FFP rules in 2019, UEFA’s willingness to enforce its own rules has to be called into question.
Ultimately, this decision is a win for one kind of wealthy versus another, which is sadly the way football would appear to be these days. If you’re a City fan, naturally you’ll be pleased, your star players and manager will likely stay while another period of unchecked spending will occur, not to mention the £150-200m pounds of Champions League money coming into the club. If you support any other club, not much really changes, the same clubs will stay at the top of European football (as intended), the only real change is to the little credibility that UEFA had left, which is now next to none. They have failed spectacularly in their attempts to reign in the two state-sponsored clubs in Europe, who spend so freely that the transfer market has been irrevocably skewed, with fees inflated to irresponsible levels. How telling it would be if City were to meet PSG, the other bad boys of FFP, in the Champions League final in Portugal in August. That potential gem of a scenario would just about flush the remains of UEFA’s integrity down the toilet for good.