October 28, 2020

Manchester City Won. Now Brace for the Losses.

MANCHESTER, England — Manchester City has its answer: the answer it wanted, the answer it was adamant, right from the start, was the only one possible.

There will be no two-year ban from the Champions League. There is no reason to worry that Pep Guardiola might seek new pastures earlier than expected, or that Kevin De Bruyne or Raheem Sterling or any other member of City’s galaxy of stars will feel the urge to leave. All of those achievements of the last decade stand, unblemished.

To Manchester City and its fans, that is what matters. The Court of Arbitration for Sport has cleared its name on appeal, striking down the charge from UEFA, the body theoretically in charge of European soccer, that City misrepresented some of its financing to circumvent cost-control rules.

True, there might still be quibbles, queries. Like whether a determination that the most serious accusations against City fell outside UEFA’s statute of limitations counts as total exoneration. Or if you can claim to be exonerated as you pay a fine of more than $11 million. Or how what the club had said was a “comprehensive body of irrefutable proof” of its innocence came down to UEFA’s not being able to make its case.

City had claimed that a cache of emails, released as part of the Football Leaks documents and explosive enough to attract UEFA’s attention, had been not just hacked but “taken out of context.” It is not yet clear quite what that context might be. Perhaps the full ruling from CAS, scheduled to be published later this week, will clear it all up. Perhaps not.

No matter: Nobody goes past the first page of Google. For City, six years of skirmishing with UEFA over its financial fair play regulations is at an end. It has its victory. Any dissent to that orthodoxy will be dismissed as sour grapes, bile produced by bitterness.

But the ramifications of this case were always likely to extend way beyond the club at its center. If there will be no tangible consequences for City — carte blanche to back Guardiola, to build a dynasty, to extend its empire of clubs — the same cannot be said for European soccer more broadly.

ImageManchester City’s benefactor, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, in 2010. The club has been transformed under his aegis.
Credit…Andrew Yates/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

At first glance, it seems a little overblown to suggest this as a Bosman moment for the 21st century: the point at which the Financial Fair Play experiment takes its last breath, where UEFA acquiesces to fate and sits idly by as clubs spend what they like.

The organization, after all, has emphasized its continuing commitment to its regulations. City has not proved F.F.P. is illegal under European Union law (and was not, in the end, trying to). UEFA has simply not brought a strong enough, or quick enough, case to police its rules in this instance.

The problem is that it is not just this instance. This is the third time UEFA has tried to punish one of the continent’s elite — for all its attempts to characterize itself as some sort of insurgent underdog, that is precisely the group to which Manchester City belongs — and it is the third time it has failed to bring any of them to heel. It has been undone, again, by procedural technicalities.

There has been no spectacular, conclusive breach in F.F.P.; just a series of cracks appearing, fatally undermining the foundation. For the richest and most powerful clubs, the rules are starting to look an awful lot like guidelines, and the impression is that UEFA cannot universally enforce them, anyway. There is, now, precious little incentive for anyone to adhere to them.

That such a blow should be delivered now is significant. UEFA has already agreed to suspend, temporarily, some of its cost-control measures, to allow clubs to ride out the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Even before the virus hit, though, UEFA was considering how its financial rules might be altered, updated, possibly simplified, to make them easier to understand and — possibly — more appealing to follow. City’s acquittal lends weight to the argument that the current approach is not up to the task, but it also highlights how difficult it will be to rewrite the rules.

There is a school of thought that perhaps it is not worth the time and effort. The belief that F.F.P. is not doing what it was supposed to do has become a truism: An idea introduced almost a decade ago to improve soccer’s financial health and to decrease its reliance on debt has become, instead, a tool to entrench the status quo, to lock ambitious clubs out of the golden circle.

Criticism, though, is easier than construction. If Financial Fair Play is jettisoned, if Manchester City’s vindication proves to be its death knell, one question lingers: What comes next?

It should not be a surprise that two of the clubs to take advantage of the relaxation of the rules this summer most quickly, Chelsea and Paris St.-Germain, have the sort of benefactors able to thrive in a world without financial regulation. Inter Milan, too, has long found F.F.P. inhibitive. Manchester City, meanwhile, is planning an overhaul of its squad. It will not come cheap.

Credit…Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

This moment is a window into what soccer’s landscape might look like without financial control: the teams with the most generous owners and the deepest pockets bending the market to their whim, cherry-picking the poor, challenging their rivals to match them or to sink into mediocrity. Perhaps that is as it should be: the strong rising and the weak falling and fading.

Except, of course, soccer has been there before, in an age of unrestrained spending. At the start of the 2010s, UEFA found that European soccer as a whole was $1.9 billion in debt. The turnaround, over the last 10 years, has been remarkable. In 2017, the continent’s clubs turned a profit of $680 million. The change, of course, was the introduction of Financial Fair Play.

That is soccer’s problem: Inherently, unapologetically tribal, it settles on the small answers and ignores the big questions. In Manchester City’s eyes, Financial Fair Play was designed, exclusively, to limit its ambitions. In the eyes of English or Spanish or Italian fans, it was created to stop arriviste wealth from distorting the sport’s economics.

But elsewhere, it has proved crucial. It has enabled UEFA to ensure that clubs in smaller markets — where the concerns are not who wins the Champions League — meet their debts and obligations by wielding the threat of expulsion from money-spinning European competitions.

F.F.P. has always looked like a paper tiger to the big clubs; for smaller teams, it has had teeth. That is its weakness, but it is also its strength. In its absence, it is in the places where it has had the most effect that the consequences will be felt: not for the clubs that can spend to their hearts’ content, but to the clubs that can risk their very existence for short-term success.

What comes next for Manchester City? The sky is the limit. For much of the rest of Europe, the trajectory may be very different.