Ramifications of City's two-year ban may be seismic – not least for Uefa

Jonathan Wilson
Photograph: Peter Powell/EPA

Perhaps all declarations of war seem slightly underwhelming in tone. Perhaps when the consequences are potentially so huge, there is no need for bombast. But, make no mistake, the drily legalistic statement Uefa released on Friday evening announcing Manchester City’s two-year ban from the Champions League for breaches of financial fair play legislation could destroy the confederation and change utterly how football is run. The crisis has been brewing for a while: it is here now.

It had seemed likely the Club World Cup would be the trigger, making clear the financial draw of the superclubs allowed them to operate without Uefa, Fifa offering the fig leaf that allowed them to accept vast sums from outside the game – just as this season’s Spanish Super Cup permitted four La Liga clubs to take large payments to help sportswash the Saudi state under the guise of spreading the game.

But Uefa has decided, whether through circumstance or design, that this should be the battleground. And in that sense financial fair play, and whether you think it a reasonable defence against feckless owners/limitlessly wealthy interests or a scandalous defence to protect the existing elite, becomes largely irrelevant – albeit the regulations are closely enough related to the greater theme that City fans can cry conspiracy. For this is, fundamentally, about power.

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What seemed most striking about hacked emails published by Der Spiegel in November 2018 was the contempt with which various City executives spoke of Uefa: the joking comment allegedly made by City’s lawyer, Simon Cliff, when a member of Uefa’s investigatory chamber died, “one down, six to go”, and the claim the club chairman, Khaldoon al-Mubarak, had told the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, that City would rather “sue for the next 10 years” than pay another fine. City have neither denied the veracity of the emails nor apologised for them, preferring to point out they were illegally obtained.

The sense is of extraordinarily rich owners used to their wealth ensuring they get their own way, which is where City’s response becomes so telling: “This is a case initiated by Uefa, prosecuted by Uefa and judged by Uefa.”

If they really believe financial fair play was, as the more paranoid fringe of City fans insists it is, a disgraceful mechanism designed to prevent their ascent, they could long before now have challenged it in the European courts. If they really believe there is a corrupt cartel of top clubs habitually getting away with FFP breaches, they could employ forensic accountants to expose them. It is not as though money is a problem.

Manchester City chief executive Ferran Soriano (right) with chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak. Photograph: Jan Kruger/Getty Images

But instead they target the organisation and its processes, objecting to protocols to which they signed up. When clubs submit their accounts to Uefa for ratification to be permitted to compete in a Uefa tournament, it is not clear who else they think should have jurisdiction. This is how sports are run.

That problem, intriguingly, is one raised by the club’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, in his 2011 book Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go in By Chance. “Like all industries,” he wrote, “football also has a regulatory body … that defines the competition rules and monitors their compliance. However, with an enormous, unique difference, this regulator also competes in the football market with some very advantageous conditions … They compete with the clubs for the audience … They also compete for sponsors … They exercise their powers in very favourable conditions: they fix the calendar, the competition. A more normal situation would be for Uefa and Fifa to concentrate on doing what a bakers’ guild really does, which is to regulate and not to compete. But this is not possible.”

That sounds a lot like somebody who has been waiting for years to cut Uefa down to size. But Soriano does have a point. There is an inherent contradiction when the game’s regulator is also a financial competitor. And it is precisely that fact that is so dangerous for Uefa.

Uefa is not the only regulator/competitor. There is also Fifa, which through its promotion of the Club World Cup has already begun to try to challenge Uefa’s control over the club game. Infantino, the Spiegel leaks revealed, helped negotiate a settlement when City and Paris Saint-Germain were first found to have breached FFP regulations. Perhaps the Fifa president was acting for the good of the game. Perhaps he was simply smoothing a path so football could continue without endless legal wrangling. Or perhaps he saw the value in accruing political capital with two boundlessly wealthy clubs who were already chafing at Uefa’s restrictions.

This is not a straightforward problem. The divide between Uefa and the interests of the superclubs is not absolute. Uefa for decades has met the threat of a breakaway super league with reluctant compromises, yielding incrementally to the greed of the superclubs. Now it finally stands up to a superclub, it is in defence of a principle supported by other superclubs, and a principle in part designed to ensure their profits.

But the ramifications could still be seismic. What if City spend their two years out of Uefa competition playing lucrative friendlies around the world? What if they show that you don’t actually need Uefa and its (already barely significant) concerns for smaller clubs to thrive? What if Fifa were willing to provide the umbrella of a new competition? That has always been the existential threat hanging over Uefa.

Everywhere the old conventions are falling away, institutions that seemed inviolable proving impotent before those willing to ignore them. This could be football’s moment.