In the immediate reaction to the court of arbitration for sport quashing Manchester City’s two-year Champions League ban, there was a view that Uefa’s financial fair play system is finished, after such a thumping defeat for its compliance structures. But given the brief Cas statement that presented an odd conundrum to conclude an extraordinary saga, and Uefa’s response, reports of FFP’s death appear to be an exaggeration.
Cas does appear to have swung a wrecking ball towards the FFP rules and the Uefa structures that govern Europe’s top-flight clubs by agreement, but perhaps not in the way assumed. The three lawyers on the Cas panel did reverse the guilty verdict of Uefa’s club financial control body’s “adjudicatory chamber” (AC), which found City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, disguised some multimillions of his own funding as independent sponsorships from Abu Dhabi companies. However the circumstances, the Cas finding that City failed to cooperate with, and even obstructed, the investigations of European football’s governing body would normally appear quite damning of a club.
A €10m (£9m) fine for that is not nothing, and would hurt most European sports organisations, but for City, with revenues of £535m last year and Abu Dhabi’s mega-wealth behind them, it barely touches the sides. So the sanction to a club was relatively minimal for obstructing a governing body’s investigation and that, rather than the overturning of the CFCB’s conclusions, looks as if it could do Uefa some damage.
There was too little detail published to make full sense of the remarkable conclusion, victorious for City, of a 20-month ordeal that began with the German magazine Der Spiegel publishing leaks of selected internal City documents that appeared to show Mansour subsidising the sponsorship by Etihad, the Abu Dhabi airline. Cas delivered its monumental reversal of the AC’s findings with barely a page, promising the full judgment explaining it all will be published in a few days.
Logically, though, the outlines can be traced of how the panel picked their way to this conclusion. One of their main findings was that some of the breaches found by the AC to have been proven were “time‑barred”. The relevant rule, article 37 in the CFCB handbook, is that “prosecution is barred after five years for all breaches of the Uefa club licensing and FFP regulations”.
We must await the judgment to find how Cas decided the AC got that wrong, but it is inconceivable the AC and the “investigatory chamber” (IC) that brought the charges did not consider that carefully before starting out, presumably with their own legal advice. So there appears to have been a lawyers’ debate at Cas about the date prosecution technically started, which Uefa lost.
Does the court of arbitration for sport decision conclude City’s financial fair play trials? Very likely, yes. In principle Uefa haves a right to contest findings on legal points in a Swiss court, but European football’s governing body has given no indication that it intends to. So City, although found by Cas to have not cooperated and to have obstructed the investigations of Uefa’s club financial control body, have succeeded in having the Champions League ban overturned, apparently by presenting a fuller case to Cas. An ordeal that began with allegations based on “leaks” published by Der Spiegel in November 2018 appears to be over, with no worse sanction for the club than a €10m fine for the obstruction of the Uefa investigations.
What were the key findings of the Cas decision? The full ruling is not yet available, but Cas has issued a one-page press release of its findings. On the central serious finding by the adjudicatory chamber (AC) of Uefa’s CFCB, that City’s owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan of the Abu Dhabi ruling family, had subsidised sponsorships from Abu Dhabi companies, Cas found the charges were “either not established or time-barred.” According to the CFCB procedural rules, a prosecution must be brought within five years of alleged breaches. Clearly the AC believed the prosecution was brought within that time, but the Cas panel of three lawyers decided it was not. The Cas panel said the charges for the unproven “concealment of equity funding” allegations were “clearly more significant” than obstructing the CFCB investigations, so lifted the Champions League ban but imposed the €10m fine.
What have City said? After the AC found the charges proven in February, City attacked Uefa and both chambers of the CFCB as biased, saying in a statement the case was “initiated by Uefa, prosecuted by Uefa and judged by Uefa”. Days later the club’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, was more conciliatory, saying “Uefa is much bigger than this FFP chamber” and praising Uefa as “an association of associations”, which has “many people that work … very hard for the benefit of Uefa, but also for the benefit of the clubs of Uefa like ours”. This time, the club issued a short statement, “welcoming the implications of today’s ruling as a validation of the Club’s position” and thanking the Cas panel members “for their diligence and the due process that they administered”.
The other alleged breaches, Cas said in its statement, were found to be “not established”. So City appear to have disproved the main allegation that Mansour funded the bulk of the £67.5m sponsorship by Etihad during 2015-16.
The AC, staffed by European lawyers of a similar seniority to those who serve on Cas, including the English barrister Charles Flint QC, did find when they banned City from the Champions League and fined the club €30m that City had failed to cooperate with the IC’s investigation. That is the one element of the CFCB conclusions Cas has upheld. Cas noted the importance of clubs cooperating with such investigations and imposed the €10m fine for the club’s “disregard of such principle and its obstruction of the investigations”.
City, having explicitly accused the IC, the AC and Uefa of bias in their official reaction to the guilty finding in February, responded to Cas by thanking the panel members and saying the club “welcomes the implications of today’s ruling as a validation of the club’s position and the body of evidence it was able to present”.
That leads to the question of how the CFCB could be expected to reach a full conclusion on the evidence if City were seemingly not cooperating to present it. The relatively puny slap from Cas, which appears to have overturned that conclusion based on fuller evidence provided by the club, is hardly a standard-setting deterrent for other clubs who might think of being obstructive.
As for FFP, there is no reason for this to sound its death knell. Uefa, which has otherwise said very little throughout the ups and downs of this rollercoaster, was quick after the ruling to reaffirm its commitment to a system it maintains has overwhelmingly improved European football’s finances. In January, Uefa released its latest annual “benchmarking” report, showing that in 2018 European top‑flight clubs made a profit overall for the second year running, compared with a total €5bn in losses made during the three years before FFP was introduced in 2011.
City’s Abu Dhabi hierarchy have always loathed these rules, the requirement to spend what a club makes in revenues, and for owners to invest in long-term structures such as the stadium and youth development rather than on signing players, seeing them as a block to their mega-project. But the Premier League, which was disdainful at first, saw the turnaround and introduced its own FFP system in 2013, which immediately reined in overspending on players’ wages and transformed a position overall of financial chaos to stability.
“Financial Fair Play has played a significant role in protecting clubs and helping them become financially sustainable,” Uefa said in its statement, “and Uefa and ECA remain committed to its principles.”
The reference to the ECA was significant: it is the association of top clubs, 246 across Europe, which has a formal memorandum of understanding with Uefa, including the commitment: “To continue to cooperate for the further development of Uefa … Financial Fair Play, which is an initiative undertaken in a collaborative manner to protect the viability, sustainability and benefit of European club football as a whole.”
City, as an ECA member, are signed up to that and while there are signals the rules will be modified, updated in as yet unspecified measures, football is extremely unlikely to return to a free-for-all of owner funding.
For City, after an ordeal when they failed to cooperate with Uefa, repeatedly accusing the organisation and its FFP trustees of bias, the club are assured of being where they have fought so hard to be next season: in the Uefa Champions League.