It’s not been a great week to be a Manchester City fan. In fact, it hasn’t really been a great season to support the team from the blue half of Manchester. Last season’s glorious title victory, coming at the end of a staggering run of consecutive victories, seems like it was a very long time ago. Their quest to win the league three years in a row has become futile – the title is headed to Anfield, and nothing the team can do will stop that from happening. Given the way Liverpool are currently playing, they might even dominate the division for years.
To make things worse, City has been handed the harshest penalty UEFA has given out for years. As things stand right now, they’re banned from entry to the European Champions’ League for two seasons. In terms of being viewed as one of the world’s top clubs, that’s as good as a death sentence. If you’re not in the Champions’ League, you miss out on the big money that comes with being in the world’s most prestigious club football competition. That makes it hard to attract the world’s top talent to your team. It also makes it difficult to persuade your current top players to stay. If the ban remains in place, it’s hard to see Pep Guardiola, Sergio Aguero, and Raheem Sterling sticking around and making do with focusing on the league.
It’s City’s financial activity over the past few years that’s landed them with the ban. The rules of the game clearly state that a team will be penalized for spending more money than it receives in income. It isn’t an edict that’s there for no reason – the idea behind it is that with the rule in place, a club cannot quickly buy its place at the top table by mortgaging its own future, or spending massive amounts of money without any apparent means of making that money back – a practice that’s been referred to as ‘financial doping.’ City’s finances have been scrutinized for years for this exact reason. Fifteen years ago, they were a mid-table Premier League side. Their new owners have invested billions of pounds into the club, and the amount spent on transfer fees far exceeds the amount received back into the club’s coffers by way of player sales, ticketing, or merchandise.
To get around this, City’s owners have furnished them with extremely lucrative ‘sponsorship deals,’ many of which come either directly from the club’s owners, or from companies that the club’s owners have ties to. From UEFA’s point of view, that’s still cheating, as the sponsorship money has been deemed artificially inflated, and far in excess of what the club would receive in sponsorship on the open market. In other words, the sponsorship money doesn’t really exist. City has just been listing figures to make the numbers add up, and the club’s owners have allegedly been signing off on those numbers to make everything appear above board. Now it seems they’ve finally been caught out.
This kind of activity was always likely to be a gamble. There’s no doubt that the individuals in charge of Manchester City have the cash to cover their losses, but that’s not the point, and that’s not the way the system is supposed to work. Sheikh Mansour, so beloved of City fans, has taken a punt on this just as surely as if he’d invested his money in UK Online Slots. In doing so, he appears to have forgotten how online slots actually work. You’ll only walk away in the black from an online slots game if what you get out from it exceeds the amount that you put in, and very few people actually manage to do that. It may even have been the highest-stakes online slots gamble in the history of soccer, and City appear to have finally declared as losers – and yet all may not be as it seems.
We’ve seen football’s top authorities had out very stiff penalties in the past, only to relent when the appeals process has been followed. We need only look at Chelsea for evidence of that. Initially the London club had been banned from all transfer activity for two windows because of illegal approaches to young players. That penalty was cut down to a single window when the club took its appeal to a higher authority. City’s lawyers appear to believe that they have a very strong case for their appeal, and have already indicated that they intend to file one. Guardiola, far from packing his bags, has indicated that he isn’t planning to go anywhere. Someone somewhere within City clearly feels that for all the headlines, UEFA’s bark is a lot worse than their bite.
This could be a watershed moment in football. City isn’t the first club to be accused of financial doping, and on the surface, at least don’t even appear to be the worst offenders. The finances of Paris Saint Germain are also extremely suspect, and it’s never been clear where the majority of Real Madrid’s income comes from. Barcelona and Real Madrid have spent huge money on players with seeming impunity for many seasons, and all Barcelona got for it was a transfer ban for a single season. Oddly, City hasn’t been banned from signing players at all. In the context of history and previous rulings on similar matters, the ban seems disproportionate and prejudicial. It’s hard to see how the Court of Arbitration for Sport could see it any differently.
As much as those football fans who can’t stand Manchester City may be celebrating at the moment, their celebrations may be a little premature. When the ban was announced, it was stated that the penalty was subject to appeal. As soon as the appeal is lodged, the ban is on hold. Manchester City and their owners are still nominally free to carry on exactly as they are – and based on the past rulings of the CAS, it’s likely that they’ll still be free to carry on exactly as they are next season, too. This was a thunderous warning shot about future conduct from UEFA, but it’s not a punishment that’s ever likely to be enforced.