Manchester City’s CAS ruling highlights hollowness of FFP, UEFA should learn from NBA to level the playing field

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UAE’s City Football Group-owned Manchester City were cleared of Financial Fair Play regulations on 13 July by the Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS).

Sometimes we need to squint to see the truth. Especially when fine lines can come no finer than the terms and conditions applied to the laws and bylaws of right and wrong in one of the most competitive industries in the world – the football industry.

UAE’s City Football Group-owned Manchester City were cleared of wrongdoing on 13 July by the Court of Arbitration of Sports (CAS). Their two-season Champions League ban has been lifted. But before we get lost in the befuddling details, let us talk about what the optics look like from the outside.

For the average football club who have to sell to buy, like Wycombe Wanderers, or the Premier League Champions, Liverpool; more accurately, for any club who isn’t bankrolled by oligarchs, this is an expunging of crime and not alleviation from it.

City know what they have done, and knew they could get away with it – by the sheer well of their resources. For those clubs, the ones left aggrieved by the ruling, this feels like a death gong for Financial Fair Play (FFP), a collective sigh of disbelief. For the ones they stand to benefit from this ruling, like Romam Abramovich’s Chelsea, it’s the spastic waving of the chequered flag signalling the start of a footballing equivalent of an arms race. The legal precedent used by City thus becomes a blueprint and an escape rope.

There’s a deeper sense of resentment now more than ever. This is at a time when non-existential gate receipts have crippled the transfer dealings of even the best (Jugen Klopp’s Liverpool reportedly could not complete a deal for star forward Timo Werner despite sustained interest), and leagues like the Bundesliga faced a 750 Million Euros loss, and once a permanent fixture in the Premier League, Wigan Athletic have declared bankruptcy.

Manchester Citys CAS ruling highlights hollowness of FFP UEFA should learn from NBA to level the playing field

CAS ruled that Manchseter City did not breach UEFA’s FFP rules by disguising equity funding as sponsorship. AP

The above-mentioned clubs, the do-it-by-the-books institutions needed catharsis in time of corona. Instead, they got a shrug.

CAS declared that Manchester City did not disguise equity funding in the visage of sponsorship money. They, however, ruled that the club obstructed the timely process of an audit by UEFA, and have decreased their fine from an initial 30 million Euros to 10 million Euros.

The two-season Champions League ban UEFA ruling coupled with the 30 million fine came in February 2020. This was an investigation conducted in reply to reports from German publication Der Speigel in 2018 claiming that the Sheik Mansour-owned club exaggerated their sponsorship income between 2012 and 2016. The Manchester City e-mail leaks supplied as evidence by the German publication were damning evidence. They suggested a flagrant, dubious waiving of the FFP rules and a future attempt to whitewash any evidence.

City football group pleaded that the means of procuring those e-mails were illegal, therefore, there can be no legal precedence on the veracity of those facts and appealed against the decision.

Yesterday’s statement from CAS read: “Following the hearing, the CAS Panel deliberated and concluded that the decision issued on 14 February 2020 by the Adjudicatory Chamber of the CFCB [UEFA Club Financial Control Body] should be set aside.”

“The CAS award emphasized that most of the alleged breaches reported by the Adjudicatory Chamber of the CFCB were either not established or time-barred.”

UEFA’s statement following the ruling helped us break that CAS statement down.

“UEFA notes that the CAS panel found that there was insufficient conclusive evidence to uphold all of the CFCBs conclusions in this specific case and that many of the alleged breaches were time-barred due to the 5 year time period foreseen in the UEFA regulations.”

According to Article 37 of UEFA’s own procedural rules covering the CFCB, “Prosecution is barred after five years for all breaches of the UEFA Club Licensing and FFP Rules”. Which is to say, after 5 years from the start of any violation, the prosecution is barred from presenting a case against the accused.

The fact that it took UEFA 8 years conveniently folds rather neatly into the timing of the ban and the CAS ruling. Thus making it a one-sided case where City were able to present their side of the paperwork with ample time to right any wrongs.

Brazenly and boldly, City posted their own statement on social media wearing the figurative garb of a martyr with mud on his robes and a cross on his shoulder welcoming the “implications of today’s ruling as a validation of the Club’s position.” The regime is anything but saintly.

To quote Jonathan Liew of the Guardian: “Does a regime serially defying a United Nations arms embargo in Libya – according to the UN’s own reports – strike you as the sort that places a high premium on bureaucratic process? Does the family that bought itself the world’s largest super-yacht – a $600m behemoth two-thirds the size of the Titanic and reportedly equipped with its own missile defence system – strike you as the sort to take a swingeing punishment with humility and good grace?

“Now: does this strike you as a group of people that is going to be intimidated by the fine print of Article 56, section (a) of the 2018 edition of Uefa’s Club Licensing and Financial Fair Play Regulations?”

Ex-UEFA communication chief, William Gaillard, had this to say: “This ruling will degenerate the European club competition into a tournament between Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – I don’t know if the Chinese want to join in. The 10 million Euros fine (for Manchester City) will be like giving a tip to a waiter in a cafe.

“I think there will be a lot of dismay on the part of the other clubs – it leaves them unprotected, including the English clubs.”

Gaillard, who was involved in the construction of Financial Fair Play rules, goes onto explain why this ruling is detrimental to club football: “When you have an owner who is in football to make a legitimate profit, to be faced with competitors with the deepest pockets in the world, is incredibly discouraging. If I were a legitimate investor, I would divest from football.

“…if FFP should be repealed then we should be focused on competitive balance just like the rules in the US with luxury tax (additional costs paid by American sports teams who spend over the agreed salary cap) or wealth tax or salary caps…we need to look at very drastic measures, otherwise the game will degenerate.”

Those who neigh, it is nigh impossible for parity to be achieved in football should look across the pond. The NBA, while not as global as football, is without a doubt many years ahead of the curb in trying to level the playing in a competitive league. The two-round trade structure limits intake and the outgoings to maintain a markedly better ecosystem where players in terms of assets can have time to develop.

Furthermore, the draft lottery system ensures that the 14 teams who would not make the play-off spots are assigned an order for the first four picks of the first round. The rest of the league’s picks are then decided by descending order of their positions, with worse teams picking earlier. What this does, is to give, a club like Southampton who are not able to secure a European league spot, a chance for securing a top, emerging talent. The draft lottery system and the draft combine nourishes teams who aren’t better off, and provides youngsters with a more idyllic environment to develop their skills and grow into a team that is not thronged by superstars.

To elaborate further: A skinny 21-year-old was 1st round, 3rd pick for the Chicago Bulls in 1984. The Chicago Bulls were ninth in the Eastern Conference. It wouldn’t be until 1988 that that now-muscular 25-year-old Michael Jordan would elevate the Bulls to a third spot and into the play-offs. This was after the Bulls finished 10th, seventh, eighth, eighth, in the league since Jordan’s recruitment. By the time Jordan retired with the Chicago side, the spindly organisation was one of the best-run units in world sport, their number 23 a global icon, and his team a six-time NBA championship winner.

The options are simple: Free itself from the yolk of unscrupulous power or usher the age of a European Super League that resigns sustainably-run, local clubs to the gallows.

It’s little surprise that football finds itself in this position. Football reflects the world and like the Ouroborous, both are on a path of self-consumption. Yet unlike COVID-19, there is a cure to this sickness: UEFA can choose to swallow the bitter medicine and learn from their cross-Atlantic peers and vaccinate future generations of football institutions from moral and financial bankruptcy.

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