Manchester City, the English Premier League champion, will find out before the end of July whether it has successfully appealed its two-year ban from European soccer’s elite Champions League.
The club, which has angrily denied breaking cost-control rules and vowed to fight any punishment, presented its defense during a three-day hearing conducted by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that concluded on Wednesday. Officials from UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, which imposed the ban, defended their decision.
Manchester City, backed by the billionaire brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, was punished in February after a lengthy investigation by UEFA concluded the club had committed “serious breaches” of so-called financial fair play rules, regulations designed to prevent clubs from spending beyond their means.
City reacted to the decision, which would deny the club as much as $200 million in Champions League payouts as well as the chance to claim the title it covets the most, by charging that the disciplinary process had been prejudicial. It vowed to present “irrefutable evidence” to CAS that would clear the team. The uncertainty surrounding the case, and City’s punishment, has cast doubt over the future of a sporting project that turned City from an also-ran into a serial winner and one of global soccer’s most powerful institutions.
Such is the sensitivity around the case, though, that little was made public before the hearing this week, including the identity of the three-member panel that heard the appeal, as is customary. The arbitration panel heard the case over video link because of travel restrictions imposed to restrict the spread of the coronavirus. In a statement, it said a verdict would most likely be announced by “the first half of July.”
“At the end of the hearing, both parties expressed their satisfaction with respect to the conduct of the procedure,” the court said in an emailed statement.
At the heart of the case against City is a claim that it disguised millions of dollars of direct investment by its owner, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, as sponsorship income, with one document published by the German news weekly Der Spiegel appearing to show that the team’s main sponsor, the Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, paid only a fraction of an $85 million sponsorship agreement.
City has denounced the use of “out-of-context materials purportedly hacked or stolen,” and it continues to contend that the leaks are part of an “organized and clear attempt to damage the club’s reputation.”
The repercussions of the verdict will be significant; Manchester City earns about $100 million a season for participating, and its exclusion — and the loss of those payments — could make it more difficult to retain staff members and players or acquire new ones.
But the case could also have consequences for parties beyond Manchester City. Clubs in the Premier League, which will return to action next Wednesday after a shutdown because of the coronavirus, are competing for places in next season’s Champions League; if City is banned, the fifth-best team will take its place in the competition.
For UEFA, the stakes are just as high. A Manchester City victory at CAS would raise serious questions about the future of the financial fair play regulations, which were introduced in 2009 as a bid to stem a culture of ballooning losses in European club soccer.
The fate of a separate investigation by the Premier League, which has its own spending rules, could also be determined by the result of City’s appeal.
City has been aggressively fighting the allegations of overspending since damaging leaks of internal emails first emerged in news media reports in 2018. The club has long claimed that it has acted properly at all times. In November, it attempted to short-circuit the case before a verdict could be rendered, but CAS rejected that effort on technical grounds. Two of the three judges involved in that decision are on the current three-arbitrator panel.
The case has poisoned Manchester City’s relationship with UEFA. Interactions between club officials and UEFA’s investigators are said to have been testy, a point made clear in the statement announcing the ban: It said the club had “failed to cooperate in the investigation.”
The bitterness extends to many of the team’s supporters. Manchester City Fans routinely jeer the Champions League anthem on match days, and others have taken to social media decrying what they perceive as unfair treatment of their team by UEFA, which they accuse of siding with more established elite clubs. The club has espoused similar sentiments.
Days after UEFA announced its ban, City’s Spanish chief executive, Ferran Soriano, said in an interview broadcast on the club’s website that “based on our experience and our perception, this seems to be less about justice and more about politics.”
The ban has no effect on this year’s Champions League, a competition that City has yet to win in spite of years of lavish spending under its Gulf owners. The team is well placed to reach the quarterfinals after defeating Real Madrid in the away leg of their two-game round of 16 series. UEFA expects the competition to resume in August, after the conclusion of the rearranged domestic league schedule.