If it’s felt like Manchester City are just an irresistible, and inevitable force, today will only underline that. Not only have they outscored their opposition since soccer returned 25-3, or won six of their eight games, or still have a very good chance at claiming three trophies this season (already won the League Cup, are in the semifinals of the FA Cup, and are one of the favorites for the Champions League), today they defeated the only obstacle seemingly in their way.
The governing body UEFA.
The Court Of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) overturned UEFA’s two-year ban of City in European competition. The ban had centered on Man City flouting Financial Fair Play Laws (FFP) by moving money from one pocket to the other. UEFA had accused their owners, essentially the Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mansour, of funding Man City’s sponsorship through their own company, Etihad. All that money comes from the same place, and UEFA claimed that City had greatly inflated that total in reports to make it look like they were clearing the threshold of operating at a profit.
But the CAS found that all the charges had essentially timed out — there’s a five-year statute of limitations — or didn’t pass evidential muster. It didn’t help UEFA’s cause that most of their evidence came from FootballLeaks, the soccer wing of WikiLeaks, via the German paper Der Spiegel. The source of these leaks was Rui Pinto, who is currently facing 147 different charges including cybercrimes and hacking (no half-measures, people).
The CAS did find that Man City refused to cooperate with the investigation, but didn’t feel that it warranted a ban and also lessened their fine from €30 million to €10M, also known as what comes out of Monsour’s nose when he sneezes.
The ramifications of City’s ban being lifted will be felt just about everywhere. On the ground in Manchester, the club no longer has to fear an exodus of players or their manager Pep Guardiola. While the squad needs tweaking (i.e. a defender other than Aymeric Laporte that doesn’t repeatedly deploy his thumb into his ass), finding world-class additions will be that much easier with Champions League football assured. Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling were perhaps the two biggest names that would have moved elsewhere without Champions League participation. That won’t happen now. This particular Death Star will roll on unencumbered.
Outside of Manchester (or on the other side of town), it means that 5th place in the Premier League now will definitely not qualify for the Champions League, nor will 8th qualify for the Europa League. Which means Leicester’s recent run of incompetence has even less of a safety net, and Chelsea’s inability to defend anything more threatening than a toddler on sugar does, too. While both would have looked at Manchester United’s recent winning streak and brilliant play with trepidation, there was some hope that even if they were passed they’d get caught in that fifth-place net. United can pass both of them and into third with a win over Southampton this afternoon and move Leicester out of the Champions League places, in fact. Suddenly that Leicester-United date on the last day of the season looks even more tasty.
On the Europa tip, Wolves, Sheffield United, Spurs, Arsenal, and Burnley all have one less spot to grapple for to get into Europe’s JV competition. For Sheffield or Burnley though, it would still be a major accomplishment.
On a Europe-wide scale, it would seem that UEFA’s FFP laws either need a complete reworking or need to be torn up and started over with something completely new. While FFP was intended to keep teams owned by obscenely rich governments or oligarchs from simply spending to their heart’s content and not worrying about the loss, it hasn’t really worked that way. Paris Saint-Germain, also owned essentially by an oil-rich Middle Eastern government, was able to skirt these laws just a couple years ago as well. Even if by no sane logic could you acquire both Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at the same time and turn a profit.
FFP was established in 2009 in response to so many teams falling into debt. Chelsea’s emergence on the scene thanks to Roman Abramovich’s money was certainly one of the major factors. That almost seems quaint now considering the amount of money Qatar and Abu Dhabi have brought into the game through PSG and City.
The attempt to throw the book at City always felt a little more punitive, simply because City had flaunted its uncooperativeness. It’s also been heavily theorized that FFP was designed only to punish those clubs owned by soccer’s “new money,” so that establishment aristocracy like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Juventus could enjoy the penthouse less encumbered. Certainly in the past Madrid and Barcelona have had to deal in some funky business to get by, though before FFP.
Still, the amount of money that City and PSG can spend has inarguably distorted the game. Neymar’s transfer to PSG has mutated transfer fees all over the continent. Remember that in response both Philipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele cost well over $100M, and neither has become anything more than a squad player, either at Barcelona or at Munich, where Coutinho was banished this season. Of all the transfers in history to eclipse 100 million euros, seven of the eight that aren’t Neymar’s transfer have happened since Neymar’s transfer. Sixteen of the 20-most expensive transfers in history have also happened since.
And UEFA has a problem. Munich just clinched their eighth straight Bundesliga title. Juventus are closing in on their 9th Serie A title. Either Madrid or Barcelona will have won the last 15 of 16 La Liga titles. PSG simply waltzes to every Ligue Un title with a yawn. Something is clearly broken.
What UEFA can do, though, is a mystery. A Europe-wide salary cap will never fly, and leagues can’t institute one themselves or they’d watch every good player flee to other countries to make more money. And if the ultra-rich like PSG or City (and possibly Newcastle to follow and perhaps Chelsea again if Abramovich decides he’s going to care) can just play a shell-game with their money, this ruling makes it nearly impossible for UEFA to do much at all.
Not every mega-club can be mismanaged into a formless goo like Man United in recent years (and even they seem to have gotten it right of late). It appears, for now, that’s the only hope.