By Tony Attwood
The appeal by Manchester City to Committee for Arbitration in Sport against Uefa is surely one of the key pivotal moments in modern football, the outcome of which will be as important and far reaching as the decision by the FA to ban women’s football in 1921, and Uefa’s ban on English clubs in European competitions in 1985.
For this appeal is not just on technical issues or points of law, but it relates to the way Manchester City have responded to Uefa’s investigation into their financial affairs. The threat made to bring Uefa down by challenging it in every court in Europe until its funding runs out is unprecedented in football and at least thus far, is unique in football.
Manchester City have already lost one appeal – that against the validity and procedures of Uefa’s case in November. And it was that appeal that led to the current problem because if CAS refutes what Man City say is irrefutable we are back to Man City not accepting the judgement of the court.
One way or another someone is going to lose: either Manchester City will have been told that they cannot challenge the authority of Uefa, or Uefa will have seen their authority so undermined, given what Man City have said, it is unlikely that FFP will survive and Uefa will be left with no credibility in the eyes of smaller clubs.
But it isn’t just the issue of the rights and wrongs, it is the attitude of Manchester City against Uefa that raises the questions, and which resulted in nine of the other top ten clubs in the Premier League writing to the CAS to inform them of the damage to Uefa and the rule of law within football, if the appeal is accepted.
Yet despite all the background noise, in essence the case ought to be simple: Man City were found by Uefa to have overstated sponsorship revenue across a four year period (2012-16). That is a long period, and one that suggests a consistent attempt to undermine the whole process of FFP, rather than just gain a short term advantage or a simple accounting error.
The hearing is being held via video, and is scheduled to close Wednesday evening but no verdict will be released immediately after the hearing. The decision “could be made during the month of July,” said Matthieu Reeb, secretary general of the CAS.
If Manchester City lose they might see through their threat to bring down Uefa, but it is more likely that they will go to the Federal Court, which also sits in Lausanne for a further appeal.
There is precedent in the case as AC Milan was excluded for one season in June 2019 from the Europa League for financial inconsistencies of a much smaller degree in one season – they were banned from the Europa League.
If found guilty Man City would lose their share of broadcasting rights, and income from sponsors which is reflected in their ability to play in the Champions League year after year – a severe blow to the club. Which is why if the two year suspension is confirmed the club has vowed to bring down Uefa. If the penalty is reduced to one year then FFP survives but is seriously weakened since it is difficult to imagine a case in which there is more evidence of manipulation of the rules than this one. If Manchester City get off then FFP is dead and buried as no case has ever had more evidence presented against a club than this. It will be a financial free for all and the oil-sponsored clubs will win.
But still, the central problem is the Manchester City statement released after the first hearings which spoke of “flawed” processes, “consistently leaked” discussions, a “prejudicial” process, and a total bias by Uefa. If Man City win, it is hard to see how Uefa deals with that, when there are other financial giants such as Real Madrid waiting in the wings to spend as much as they want.
It will also show Saudi Arabia, if it manages to get control of Newcastle, what it can get away with.
But there is also the issue of the Manchester City attack on the former Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme, claiming that in December 2018, he “publicly previewed the outcome and sanction he intended to be delivered, before any investigation had even begun”.
Alleging in public rather than in the hearing’s proceedings that Uefa’s team of investigators acted improperly showed a magnitude of disrespect for European football’s governing body which made others uneasy. The view elsewhere seems to be that Uefa is not perfect but of late it has been something of a bulwark against a continuously corrupt Fifa.
The decision by the British media to withdraw from any commentary on what is happening with Fifa at the moment in the Swiss courts has undoubtedly supported Manchester City’s position from the perspective of the English reader, but of course the hearing is in Europe, where knowledge of Fifa’s current difficulties are daily reading. If Uefa is shown to have been corrupt in its dealings with Man City, Fifa will feel liberated as never before.
What’s more, the fact is that most clubs in Europe are in favour of FFP, as given that imbalances between clubs are still there, and oil-rich states in the middle east are increasingly using football as their proxy battlefield (something that the English media has only recently become aware of with the highlighting of the activities of the BeOutQ TV stations which decode encoded TV signals for viewers across the region and north Africa.)
What worries clubs across Europe is that Manchester City, having been granted vast amounts of money from outside football, have been particularly active in demanding more of the available money for the top six clubs, (there was a detailed report on this in the Guardian on 2 June 2018).
But most of all what everyone is looking to see is whether Manchester City make more of their allegations that Uefa processes are flawed, its officials prejudiced, for reasons unexplained. And this is where so much attention is now focused. City stated that “the Uefa Chief Investigator … publicly previewed the outcome and sanction he intended to be delivered, before any investigation had even begun”. The process was so biased process that there was “little doubt in the result that he would deliver” and that “this is a case initiated by Uefa, prosecuted by Uefa and judged by Uefa”.
That is the core of the issue. Can one club challenge the entire process of Uefa, and discredit its chief investigator? It is like one of us going into a High Court hearing and claiming the judge is bent and British justice and the trial by jury system is based on wholly false premises, and the court saying “Fair enough, we give up.”
So in the end what this comes down to is, did Manchester City lie when reporting its sponsorships or has Uefa set up a court system which it itself has abused?
The fact is that the body which heard the original charges against Man City was not made up of local football officials with no experience. The hearing was chaired by a former general prosecutor in Portugal who agreed with the other members of the hearing, a Dutch law professor, a highly experienced Swiss judge, a former Polish sports minister and an English QC who is also director of Dubai’s financial services authority.
Whatever the outcome of the hearings today, these allegations are unlikely to be forgotten. For no matter what the result, the people who made these allegations will still be there, and so will the people they have so vigorously accused.
As a result of this case, something has to give.
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