UEFA, which has waved its paw at the Financial Fair Play debate for far too long, has finally found its claws after banning Manchester City from the Champions League — but the ensuing fight is now going to be bloody and extended.
The principles at both ends of the argument are passionate and strike at the heart of what the sport is all about; the protagonists are rich and powerful and their resources almost limitless.
This is Football versus City Football Group. A governing body against one of the richest men in the world and his business empire, with everything at stake and the best lawyers in the world no doubt on standby.
Uefa, you have to surmise, must be pretty confident in their case to even consider taking on the battle, and yet City are adamant they are innocent, the victims of a witch hunt and totally confident that they will be exonerated by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
The reason Uefa are so determined to act is that the view in football now is that breaking financial fair play rules is tantamount to cheating — it’s described by some as financial doping.
So, accusations that City had deliberately overstated its sponsorship revenue in its accounts, and in the break-even information submitted to Uefa between 2012 and 2016, is serious.
If proven, it would mean that City effectively gained an advantage over their rivals in European football through off-the-pitch cheating.
For Uefa, who have already failed to make a similar claim stick against Paris St Germain, losing this battle would be a huge blow to their entire Financial Fair Play system and leave clubs across Europe wondering whether the system could ever be policed.
For City, losing would be equally disastrous. Owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan has spent €1.5bn since arriving at City in 2008 and has made no secret of the fact that, despite everything he has achieved already, his ultimate dream is to see City lift the Champions League.
So, talk about whether Pep Guardiola will stay if City’s European ban is upheld is not even the biggest worry for Manchester City fans. The biggest concern is whether Mansour will continue the project.
City legend Rodney Marsh was first to broach the subject when he tweeted yesterday night, saying: “If this decision is upheld it would not surprise me to see owner Sheikh Mansour sell the club.”
But before anyone gets carried away over that possibility, let’s take a moment to look at exactly what — and who — Uefa are up against.
Sheikh Mansour is the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, half brother of current UAE president Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nayhan, presidential affairs minister in the UAE, and a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family.
His father was the Emir of Abu Dhabi HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Ak Nahyan and his fortune is said to top €4.25bn.
A man who has put so much into a football club, including investing, through City Football Group, in an entire family of other clubs — New York City FC, Melbourne City FC, Yokohama F. Marinos in Japan, Club Athletico Torque in Uruguay, and Girona FC in Spain — is not going to give up on his investment easily.
So although Uefa’s Adjudicatory Chamber said City had “failed to cooperate in the investigation of this case”, there remains every chance the punishment will be at the very least reduced on appeal — and nobody is ruling out a more significant victory for City just yet.
When PSG faced a similar charge — they are owned by Qatar — an independent body found they were not guilty, and CAS barred the case from being re-opened last year.
The example of AC Milan is also interesting, though. They were banned from European competition for two years for breaching Financial Fair Play rules in 2018, but appealed and eventually played in the Europa League the following season.
It’s an example of Uefa’s increasing determination to fight back, however, that Milan were referred to Uefa’s financial watchdog against last year and eventually made to serve a one-year ban (which is currently in place).
City feel they have been treated unfairly and differently to their major rivals, but Milan’s experience will be a concern, and this is not a new argument.
The bad blood between City and Uefa has gone on for years — so much so that City supporters still boo the Champions League anthem.
That intense anger and mistrust will only grow after yesterday’s announcement, but there’s no doubt the bitter legal battle which lies ahead will echo far beyond the Etihad.
It is part of an extended attempt by football to deal with the influx of money into the game, with super-rich individuals and even entire countries now dominating the market and redrawing the football map which in the past has always been based on history, prestige, stature, and fan base.
The fact that City, through huge investment but also through considerable business acumen and a clever strategy, have been able to overtake Manchester United — possibly the biggest name in football — not just on the pitch but off it, alarms many.
It strikes at the heart of football’s soul and what the European game has been based on.
Is it a fairytale story that gives every club hope? Or is it the nail in the coffin for the ambition of any club that cannot attract the unimaginable investment from a multi-billionaire owner?
Uefa fear it is the latter, and that’s why ‘financial doping’ is being so seriously pursued, not just in European competition but at lower levels too.
In the Football League in England, for instance, Derby County are accused of over-valuing their ground when it was sold to owner Mel Morris — and Sheffield Wednesday are charged with doing exactly the same with their owner Dejphon Chansiri.
Both those clubs deny they have done anything wrong and similarly City describe their charges as ‘flawed’.
FOR all the opposition fans laughing on social media at City’s demise — and many of them are at Old Trafford — it’s worth remembering that what happens in this case will have a huge impact on many other clubs — including United should the Glazers eventually opt to sell, or indeed if they felt it was time to invest more heavily.
If City lose in the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and Uefa finally tighten their grip on the game, the future of football could look very different — fairer you might say, but certainly different.
It’s a scenario that City Football Group cannot even afford to contemplate.
It would mean 12 years of investment and strategy brutally wounded just at a time when they looked like they were capable of closing in on their ultimate goal — of conquering the world and winning the Champions League.
For Uefa, it’s just as intense, because their grip on the European game, the viability of Financial Fair Play and the future of many of their football clubs — in danger of going out of business as they desperately try to keep up with state and billionaire-owned rivals — is at stake.