It had been rumored for a while UEFA had been becoming increasingly frustrated with Manchester City, not only for possible breaches of Financial Fair Play regulations between 2012 and 2016 but for the club’s reluctance to cooperate with its investigation. Just how irritated became clear on Friday as Man City was banned from the Champions League for the next two seasons and fined €30 million ($32.5 million).
The action is based on allegations published in the German magazine Der Spiegel in November 2018, resulting from the leaking of emails and documents by a hacker at the time known only as John. He is now known to be a 31-year-old Portuguese national called Rui Pinto, who is currently in jail facing 147 charges concerning leaks relating to Portuguese football clubs and companies. His work has also led to serious allegations of financial misconduct being made against Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the former president of Angola.
Pinto’s leaks concerning Man City appear to show that in 2015-16 only £8 million of City’s annual £67.5 million shirt sponsorship deal with Etihad actually came from the airline, the rest being made up by the Abu Dhabi United Group, a vehicle established by City’s owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. That was one of three contracts alleged to be overvalued, apparently in an attempt to circumvent FFP regulations.
City has always denied the allegations. When it was charged last May, the club insisted the process was “hostile” and that “a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence” had been ignored, while on Thursday this week it again attacked UEFA's investigatory process, protesting about what it saw as leaks of confidential information.
The leaks of November 2018 also apparently uncovered an e-mail from City’s club lawyer Simon Cliffe, saying that club chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak had told FIFA president Gianni Infantino that “he would rather spend £30 million on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years” than acknowledge liability and pay a fine.
City has consistently insisted the means by which the evidence against it was procured was illegal and has suggested that FFP regulations may themselves be in breach of European law. City has said it will appeal, "in the first instance" to the Court of Arbitration for Sport – suggesting other avenues through the courts are possible. In 2014, City accepted a fine of €60 million, €40 million withheld, and a reduction of its Champions League to 21 rather than the usual 25 players in its Champions League squad for FFP breaches.
The ban will raise further speculation about Pep Guardiola’s future at the club. He is currently in his fourth season at City. He left Barcelona after four seasons and Bayern after three, in both instances preferring not to try to rejuvenate his squad. After two hugely impressive seasons in which it collected a total of 198 points, City has looked jaded this season and in need of rebuilding. Whether Guardiola would be prepared to go through that process when the chance to win the prize he most wants, another Champions League, could be denied to him for two seasons, is debatable.
His mood recently has been odd. This week, he said that if City were to go out of the Champions League to Real Madrid in the last 16 this season, then he would understand it if he were sacked. Given the efforts City has made to accommodate him and given his success, it would be extraordinary were the club to take that step, and there has been no suggestion it would or even speculation it might. It’s easy to read too much into press conference comments, but the sense was of a man contemplating his end, working out ways in which he might end up departing.
There is also a strong possibility now that UEFA's verdict has been announced that the Premier League could also take action, which could mean a points deduction, although which season that might relate to is another unknown. It’s also unclear at this stage what happens to the Champions League qualification slot City would otherwise surely claim this season. Does the Premier League lose that, or does it drop down to fifth place in the table? The latter would suddenly rejuvenate hopes for a handful of clubs.
But the greatest uncertainty is the appeal that will certainly come. This is a powerful statement from UEFA, and a huge blow for City, but the fight isn’t over yet. It may only just have started.