What was this case all about?
In February, Manchester City were banned from European competition for two years and fined €30 million (£27m) for “serious breaches” of Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules and for failing to cooperate with an investigation into them. The club were found to have overstated sponsorship revenue and break-even information in accounts submitted to European football’s governing body between 2012 and 2016. It followed an investigation into explosive documents obtained by Football Leaks and published in November 2018. City branded the allegations against them “entirely false”.
What did the documents show?
The documents, allegedly obtained by illegal email hacks, were said to show £59.5million supposed to have come from City’s principal sponsor, Etihad Airways, was paid directly to the club by their owners. City were also alleged to have set up a secret scheme called ‘Project Longbow’, which effectively hid about £40million in payments to players, after the club had agreed a £49m fine – later reduced to £16.3m – as a settlement for FFP breaches in 2014. Other potential breaches were allegedly discussed in emails between senior figures dating back as far as 2010, while City were also accused of manipulating other sponsorship deals by backdating them.
Why was City’s ban overturned?
The Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that “most of the alleged breaches” were “either not established or time-barred” – the latter relating to a five-year statute of limitations under FFP rules. CAS did uphold the guilty verdict imposed on City for failing to cooperate with the investigation by Uefa’s Club Financial Control Body but deemed that worthy only of a €10m (£9m) fine, ruling “it was not appropriate to impose a ban on participating in Uefa’s club competitions for MCFC’s failure to cooperate with the CFCB’s investigations alone”. Its justification for this ruling and details on which alleged breaches were “not established or time-barred” should emerge when CAS publishes its final award with reasons “in a few days”.
Can this decision be appealed?
Technically, CAS verdicts can be appealed to the Swiss Federal Tribunal but it is all but unheard of for a sports governing body not to accept the ruling of sport’s highest court and Uefa has given no indication it will seek to take the matter further. The grounds for such an appeal are also usually extremely limited in scope.
What does this mean for City?
Overturning their ban is up there with the most stunning triumphs in the club’s history. Exile from the Champions League even for one season could have cost them as much as £100 million on top of their original fine. The ban had also raised serious doubts over the future of manager Pep Guardiola and star players such as Kevin De Bruyne and it would doubtless have been a major blow to their hopes of signing much-needed reinforcements for their bid to regain the Premier League title from Liverpool.
What does this mean for other clubs?
With City having already finished as runners-up to Liverpool, their ban had meant the fifth-placed side in the Premier League would qualify for the Champions League next season. That currently looks like being one of Manchester United, Chelsea and Leicester City, who face an even more intense battle to finish third and fourth in the table. Having appeared certain to qualify before the coronavirus crisis, Leicester’s dreadful form during Project Restart now makes them favourites to miss out.
What does this mean for FFP?
‘FFP RIP’ was trending on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of the CAS ruling and it is not hard to see why. This case was billed as a fight over the very future of Uefa’s regulations, the reputation of which had taken a battering thanks to previous high-profile defeats at CAS – most notably at the hands of Paris St Germain. The fact both the PSG and City cases unravelled partly due to issues over statutes of limitations written into Uefa’s own rules is a damning indictment of those rules.
What about the Premier League investigation into City?
As well as the FFP investigation, Manchester City were also being probed by the Premier League over financial issues, academy recruitment and third-party ownership. That investigation – begun in March 2019 – remains on-going. It has been suggested the Premier League were awaiting the CAS judgment before proceeding further.