Uefa have given up fighting Man City – now the English side are going to dominate their competition

Manchester City - Uefa have given up fighting City – now the English side are going to dominate their competition - Getty Images/Michael Regan
Manchester City - Uefa have given up fighting City – now the English side are going to dominate their competition - Getty Images/Michael Regan

Should the Uefa president Aleksander Ceferin present Manchester City with Europe’s greatest club trophy before midnight in Istanbul on Saturday he will do so on the third anniversary of another seismic day in the history of both club and governing body.

It was on June 10, 2020, in Lausanne, that a three-day hearing concluded to define the future of City. The club’s team of eleven lawyers and one expert witness in the room that day had, as it would turn out, prevailed. A two year-ban from Uefa competition would be overturned. A €30 million fine cancelled and replaced with a €10 million fine for a separate single charge. The credibility of Uefa’s financial fair play rules would be in ruins.

Just 15 months earlier, Uefa had lost a case at the same Court of Arbitration for Sport [Cas] to Paris Saint-Germain. Defeat to City served notice that the nation-state clubs, with their unlimited wealth, and legal power it brought, were too powerful an adversary for Uefa and its lawmakers.

The infamous threat in one of the leaked emails that formed the centre of the City case felt prophetic. The club’s Abu Dhabi owners would, it was alleged, unleash 50 lawyers for ten years at the cost of €30 million, rather than bow to Uefa’s rules. As it turned out, City had won in a much shorter timeframe. The Uefa process had banned and fined the club on February 14, 2020. By June 10 of that year, City had won the case on appeal at Cas, even if it was not until the following month that the result would be declared.

When it was there was disbelief at first, then recriminations. Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, then chairman of Bayern Munich, said that Uefa had blown it. “The Uefa panel responsible for Champions League matters didn’t do a great job, it’s looking like,” he told AP. “What I heard from different sources is that it was not [well] organised in advance.”

Since winning that appeal, City have reached two Champions League finals, the first of which in 2021 was in the first season of their original two-season ban. In the interim, Uefa has faced the European Super League rebellion. It remains a governing body fighting for its very existence. Yet in the VIP hospitality areas of the Ataturk Stadium on Saturday there will be many in Uefa suits asking the same question. How did Uefa lose this case to City?

In the words of Uefa’s own counsel, the seven breaches of which City were originally found guilty were “the most serious” its independent process had considered, when it came to the “seriousness, repetition and intentional nature of the conduct”. City, Uefa said, had overstated sponsorship revenue by around £204 million between 2012 and 2016. The fine and ban were designed to reflect that and to “protect the integrity of Uefa club competition”. Yet those measures were defeated within four months by City’s lawyers, who won on a majority of 2-1 by the Cas panel.

The Uefa process began with the investigatory chamber (IC) of Uefa’s club financial control body collecting evidence and then an adjudicatory chamber (AC) reached judgement. Both were independent of the governing body and for good reason. As with all football disciplinary matters, great and small, the establishing of independence from the executive and its politics is crucial. Yet when the case went to appeal at Cas, it reverted to Uefa’s in-house legal department to defend the work of the IC and the AC. It did not succeed in making the case.

Among other things, Uefa’s lawyers did not object to the nomination by City of the Portuguese lawyer Rui Botica Santos as chairman or indeed ask for that position to be chosen independently. Both sides were then permitted to select one panellist each. Cas three-person panels only require a majority verdict.

City would subsequently add witnesses, as well as evidence, not made available to the original AC hearing. “The theory is a nonsense,” City argued, that it had provided sponsorship rights to Abu Dhabi companies Etisalat and Etihad, for a cost that was then supplemented by its ownership, Abu Dhabi United Group. “It would,” City said, “amount to a pointless, self-defeating conspiracy.” In the end the question of whether City were guilty or not came down in no small part to an argument over whether certain breaches fell within the five-year timeframe Uefa rules stipulated.

Uefa’s legal team lost that argument at Cas. The alleged supplementing by City of payments through Etisalat, a telecommunications business, was judged time-barred. The corresponding charge regarding the Etihad payments was partially time-barred and not proven in the view of the majority of the panel. The Cas panel would decide that City had failed in their duty to cooperate, for which the club received that €10 million fine.

City’s lawyers fought every step of the way. Did the club benefit from the sense of urgency to get the case settled in those first six months of 2020? City’s ban from the Champions League was looming the following season as European football bodies tried to complete – or resolve – the Covid-wrecked 2019-2020 campaign. In early March, nine Premier League clubs including the rest of the big six, applied to Cas to block any possible delay to City’s ban. But City never applied for a stay of execution. The club, by that point, appeared to want the case heard quickly.

Uefa’s lawyers also seemed fixated on a swift resolution, at the same time calling new evidence from City “implausible, misleading and lacking credibility”. Was this the time for Uefa’s lawyers figuratively to put their foot on the ball and slow the process down? The case headed inexorably for that June hearing and a Cas panel of three, of which two had been selected by Uefa’s opposition.

At the hearing there were 12 present on City’s side. From Uefa just four in the room, and two British counsel attending by video-conference call. It would be a most damaging defeat for Uefa, and its failure to enforce its own rules would contribute in no small part to the disquiet that prompted the Super League breakaway. Now it is the Premier League’s legal team that faces City’s lawyers, who already have one notable scalp. City, needless to say, deny any wrongdoing.