Manchester City’s battle with Uefa has backfired – but their war has only just begun
How did Manchester City get into this mess? It is obvious how it started. The reigning champions tried to disguise direct payments from Sheikh Mansour, the owner, by inflating the sponsorship provided by Etihad airlines.
The two-season ban from the Champions League and €30 million fine is unlikely to be the end of it. A series of appeals will dominate the immediate future and overshadow the rest of the campaign and beyond. City should have seen this coming.
What caused things to spiral out of control was the club’s attitude to Uefa and the financial fair play rules. City’s policy was aggressive, sneering denial. They were convinced that they could stare down European football’s governing body and win. The contempt was summed up in the Football Leaks emails published by Der Spiegel, the German magazine.
One internal communication by Simon Cliff, the Etihad’s in-house lawyer, said that Khaldoon al-Mubarak, the chairman, warned Gianni Infantino, then Uefa’s general secretary and now president of Fifa, that City would not accept a sanction for exceeding the allowed €45m losses in 2012 and 2013. According to Cliff, Khaldoon told Infantino: “He would rather spend 30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue [Uefa] for the next 10 years.”
No room for compromise there. There was worse to come. One of the focuses of City’s anger is the investigatory chamber (IC), the body that looks into breaches of the financial rules. When Cliff’s reaction to the death of Jean-Luc Dehaene, a former chair of the IC, was made public, shock waves went through Nyon: “1 down, 6 to go,” the lawyer wrote. It sent a chill down the spines of the members of the committee. No one likes to hear anyone is wishing them dead.
Uefa became convinced that City were bent on destroying the organisation and that the resources and power of Abu Dhabi would be employed to that end. The war was on.
Back on the Etihad Campus, the powers-that-be made a number of critical miscalculations. City believed, rightly, that it would be very difficult to use the Football Leaks information against them. The cache of emails had not been legally obtained. However, the basis for Uefa’s charges did not come from Der Spiegel. It came from information submitted by the club. From the start, the IC were certain they had the evidence they needed.
The other misapprehension that sealed City’s fate is that they assumed Uefa had rushed the case because the referral to the adjudicatory chamber was made at the last minute before a stature of limitations kicked in. City’s entreaties to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (Cas) homed in on procedural issues. It was the wrong approach. The reason Uefa took things almost to the deadline was to ensure their case was rock solid. There was no mad scramble last May, just a forensic check and recheck to ensure any loopholes were closed. In Nyon they were delighted that City were obsessed with procedure.
Uefa have no illusions about the gravity of this showdown. The ruling body are fully aware that it is not taking on a mere football club but a country. Abu Dhabi’s resources are mindboggling. The law and accountancy firms working for Nyon do not expect to get work in the Gulf in the foreseeable future. This made it vital that Uefa picked a battle it believed it could win. Defeat would not only leave Financial Fair Play in ruins but the organisation’s moral authority trashed.
In Abu Dhabi they should understand lines in the sand. They failed to grasp when one was drawn in Switzerland.
The spotlight now moves on to the Premier League. There is little appetite to take action against City but the rules are clear. Any club making false statements to Uefa faces disciplinary action from the domestic body and the transgression cuts across the financial controls in England, too. The most likely outcome is a points deduction.
The real pain comes from exile from the Champions League, though. City have been brought to this point by a mixture of hubris and poor judgement. The club that was built to dominate English football for the next decade has been set back at least five years. They will return to Cas but their premature appeal last year may well have jaundiced the view of their case in Lausanne. The Swiss courts are the next step. Things may well get uglier on and off the pitch at the Etihad.