Was UEFA’s Biggest Problem Stubbornness Or Cowardice?

In the world of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), we often employ an ‘Extensive Reading Project’ as part of our grading system for students.

The idea is to ensure maximum language input for a person who is trying to learn a foreign language, but who does not live in a country in which the target language is spoken, or where there is very little exposure to the target language.

For the project, you get to choose whatever topic most motivates you to want to read on it exclusively and you read often. Extremely often. Extensively in other words. Ideally anything you can get your hands on.

You may avoid any text where the level of linguistic complexity is too far beyond your current level of proficiency so that the project is still enjoyable, but sufficient for it to be more or less inevitable that you will begin to acquire words and phrases of relatively high frequency.

Your vocabulary increases. Your processing speed of the written language increases. Also high frequency chunks of language may even work their way into your own speech, depending on your level of motivation and attitude to risk-taking in encounters with native speakers. It’s a great auxiliary tool to support formal language instruction.

One Korean student recently (and perhaps ever so slightly unwisely) decided to take on as his project topic: “The UEFA Financial Fair Play (FFP) Case against Manchester City FC.” No doubt he got no little encouragement from a certain professor. I was interested in the fruits of his labour and the conclusions in his report. Could a youngster with no bias sum it all up better than seasoned football journos?

So back to 2009 in the archives he went, trawling through online articles in which this topic was featured, however indirectly. (Koreans can be extremely thorough). September 2009 was of course when the FFP regulations were first settled by the UEFA Financial Control Panel overseen by the now disgraced Michel Platini.

From there he proceeded to the formation of the independent body (Investigatory and Adjudicatory Panel system) set up to investigate and enforce the new rules and then began to take a closer look at Manchester City, who the year before had been acquired by The Abu Dhabi United Group for a reported 200 million from UK Sports Investments Limited controlled by ex-Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

It was expected that these new owners seemed set to far outstrip the financial investment in the club made by the previous owner.

This would undoubtedly be of interest to UEFA’s brand new FFP project. Especially since among the very first acts of the new owners was an attempt to gazump rival Manchester United’s purchase of Dimitar Berbatov for 30 odd million pounds and then successfully beat Chelsea to the signing of Real Madrid’s Robinho for an even higher figure to break the British Transfer Record.

Looking back, perhaps it was here, in the final minutes of the 2008 transfer window, that Javier Tebas, David Gill, Rick Parry and others in the G14 cartel, watched the exciting young Brazilian wave goodbye to Spain and decided to make it a priority to bring these upstarts from Manchester to heel.

Sure enough, with aggregate losses of over £150m in the first two years to be assessed, (the maximum allowable loss was around £38m), City were set to fail FFP at the first hurdle.

King of The Kippax writer Colin Savage has argued that this was not at all a surefire inevitability, with compelling evidence that City fell foul of what amounted to a trap: UEFA seem at first to have been willing to work closely with City’s accounting staff to prepare for the first assessment, perhaps even helping them to comply with various provisions for mitigation.

They then allegedly changed the rules when the Club’s backs were turned.

For more on this see here. Whatever the case, and despite their best efforts, City failed and UEFA sharpened its teeth. Savage quotes respected blogger Swiss Ramble summarising in 2015:

“Although the club believed that it had complied with these regulations, there was “a fundamental disagreement between the club’s and UEFA’s respective interpretations of the FFP regulations on players purchased before 2010.” Basically, the club thought that it would have been able to exclude £80 million of such costs from its break-even calculation, but this was not allowed, as the break-even deficit in 2011/12 was not entirely due to pre-June 2010 player contracts. The difference was negligible, but this meant that the entire £80 million could not be utilized”.

It seems therefore that there was no intent to deceive or disguise anything. Knowing they were set to fail and having worked hard to comply with rules on the mitigation of losses to avoid sanctions, one can only conclude that City were hopping mad to be so deceived. Perceptions of hostility from the City higher-ups and subsequent allegations of non-compliance can now be seen in a very different light. How would you feel? Perhaps Mr. Al-Mubarak was justified in his alleged threat to hire legions of world class lawyers to give UEFA what for.

As we all now know, in May 2014, he decided to “take the pinch.” A fine of €60 million [£49m] and a playing squad reduced to 21 players for the following season’s Champions League. The €60m fine would be withheld from the Champions League revenue generated, with €40m [£32.5m] to be suspended and returned upon subsequent compliance. City also agreed to “significantly limit spending in the transfer market for seasons 2014/2015 and 2015/2016” and restrict their net spend in the 2014 transfer window to €60m.

Over 4 years passed without much incident and City were in full compliance and released from the strictures of the 2014 ‘settlement agreement.’

Back to our Korean student. The next thing on his agenda was hacked emails from City officials and their sensationalisation in articles published in Der Spiegel in November 2018 and the feeling that under pressure from The Cartel, UEFA would attempt to take “a second bite at the cherry” against their own better judgement.

Under time pressure imposed by their own rules, it would be difficult to re-open the case against City, revisit the 2014 settlement and try to impose a more stringent sanction. However as we know, this is what they have endeavoured to do, beginning in March 2019 and City responded robustly:

Manchester City welcomes the opening of a formal UEFA investigation as an opportunity to bring to an end the speculation resulting from the illegal hacking and out of context publication of City emails. The accusation of financial irregularities are entirely false. The Club’s published accounts are full and complete and a matter of legal and regulatory record.”

If UEFA’s intentions were unclear to some at the time, they were no longer so on May 13 2019 when The New York Times writer Tariq Panja claimed that UEFA were “expected to recommend that the team be barred from the Champions League.”

Pushing forward, on May 16 last year, UEFA’s magistrates court (Investigatory Panel) referred the matter up to its Crown Court (Adjudicative Panel) in pursuit of a ban and within a month, City made their first and unsuccessful appeal to CAS to have the matter thrown out. Whilst CAS failed to rule in City’s favour in November, they did tellingly note concerns about alleged leaks coming out of UEFA’s independent and purportedly confidential meetings.

Finally, on February 2020, UEFA dropped the bomb. A 2-year ban from the Champions League and a €30m fine.

Mercifully for City, in the past several days, CAS this time has thrown out UEFA’s sanctions to effectively exonerate City and in the coming days, more details will be released on the nature of their decisions.

After all that reading, let’s hear what our young Korean friend thought of the whole saga:

Just seems like UEFA were bullied by others into making a really bad decision. They must know their own rules. They must know those email leaks were probably spun to make a sensation. When you want to punish somebody, you better do it properly the first time and not try to go back. City look like they have obeyed all the rules since. So UEFA’s objective was met. They must have spent huge money and so much time for what looks like fear. They must be smart people, all those people at UEFA. They could not be that stupid. It can only be that they were pressured.

At the moment, it’s hard to argue with that assessment. “Out of the mouths of babes…”