Beginning Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) will hear Manchester City's appeal against the two-year ban from UEFA competition (the Champions League, basically) and €30 million ($33m) fine issued to them by the Adjudicatory Chamber of Independent Club Financial Control Body (CFCB).
WHY ARE WE HERE?
The CFCB found that City "committed serious breaches" of Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations -- which limit the net losses clubs can accrue over a three-year period -- between 2012 and 2016 and failed to cooperate with the subsequent investigation. In response, the club made it clear they felt the process was "flawed," that the accusation of financial irregularities is "false" and that there is "irrefutable evidence" of their probity that has been ignored.
Regardless of whether City are found guilty or acquitted, the worst thing that could happen at CAS is for some kind of "fudged" verdict, wrapped in technicalities and legalese, that few people understand and that will leave a halo of uncertainty over what really went down. If UEFA win under those circumstances, not only would it leave the door open for an uncomfortable legal challenge in a civil court -- CAS is the Supreme Court of sports but, while it would be near unprecedented, there is a legal pathway through the courts in Switzerland where UEFA and CAS are based -- it would also fuel City's persecution narrative. And were UEFA to lose on a technicality, it would call into question the CFCB's ability to enforce FFP regulations.
Such is the ill will and mistrust between the parties, and such is the tension around the hearing, that this is a zero-sum game: There cannot be a fudged verdict; there can only be a winner and a loser.
HOW WILL A DECISION BE REACHED?
Deliberations will be made by a three-man panel of judges: one chosen by CAS, one chosen by UEFA and one chosen by City. They will have sweeping powers to either uphold the sentence, reduce it, throw it out or send the whole affair back to the CFCB for more clarification. A verdict is expected in the next three to four weeks.
WHAT IS AT STAKE?
A two-year Champions League/UEFA ban and fine could cost City as much as £150 million ($190m) over two seasons when you consider lost income like prize money, box office receipts and sponsorship. That's roughly one-quarter of their projected pre-pandemic revenues, which in turn could force cost-cutting to a wage bill that currently is among the highest in the Premier League at nearly £300 million ($380m). Meanwhile, a forced absence from the Champions League could make it more difficult to retain and attract players.
This matters hugely to UEFA too. Many fans operate under the assumption that City breached FFP and cooked the books, as suggested by Der Spiegel's "Football Leaks" investigation. They expect City to be found guilty and any CAS verdict that does not reflect this will be seen as evidence that FFP is a sham and not something UEFA are serious about enforcing.
That's why, to borrow a phrase from wrestling, this verdict needs to have "a clean finish" one way or another. Forget, for a minute, the substance of the matter: whether or not City are guilty. The simple fact of the matter is that to determine guilt or innocence you need to have all the evidence presented to the CFCB as well as the legal and accounting knowledge to determine what constitutes an infraction.
You could fit the men and women with that knowledge in a minivan: we're talking a handful of people at the CFCB, City's legal team and, next week, the CAS panel. Nobody else is in the intersection of the Venn diagram of people who both have the facts and are capable of understanding them.
Even among the select few who are, there is room for interpretation. That is what makes this whole affair so sticky and messy and is why the explanation is just as important as the verdict: it has to be either clear evidence of wrongdoing or clear evidence of innocence.
WHY IS THAT SO IMPORTANT?
If it is a mess of technicalities and legalese that no neutral fully understands, then nobody wins. In this instance, even if City are acquitted, perceptions are not going to change if that's how they get off or that's how the narrative gets spun. This last part is particularly important not just for the club and fans, but for the owners.
It is a commonly held view that Manchester City are personally owned by Abu Dhabi, hence all those jokes about competing with petro-states and so on. But that is only partly true: City are owned by City Football Group, a holding company that controls a number of clubs including New York City FC, Melbourne City and others. However, more than a fifth of City Football Group is itself owned by other shareholders. One of the biggest is Silver Lake Partners, an American private equity firm. Another is China Media Capital, also a private equity group. And then there's the Citic Group, an investment company owned by the Chinese government.
WHAT WILL THE NON-EMIRATI INVESTORS WANT TO KNOW?
Regardless of the verdict, they will want to know exactly what happened and when. No doubt they all did their due diligence before investing -- Silver Lake pumped in half a billion dollars in November 2019; the two Chinese groups acquired their stakes in December 2015 -- but they will not have been party to the day-to-day details for which City are on trial.
It is not even clear to what degree Sheikh Mansour has a handle on this. Sure, he owns a majority of the club, so the buck stops with him. But he's in Abu Dhabi, not Manchester, and has only ever attended one game. He is not a hands-on owner, not least because he has a laundry list of other roles.
It is a similar case for club chairman Khaldoon Al-Mubarak, whose day job is CEO of the Mubadala Investment Company, Abu Dhabi's de facto sovereign wealth fund, which manages assets worth nearly $100 billion -- nearly 20 times the value of City. Moreover, his Mubadala gig is an executive position, meaning he makes daily decisions, which is why he hired Ferran Soriano as chief executive to make decisions at City on a similar basis.
SO THERE IS MORE TO IT THAN MANCHESTER CITY VS. UEFA?
That's the funny thing about this narrative; both sides have acted with confidence throughout, arguing they have a watertight case though neither can be sure. Not UEFA as an organization, not the City owners. It will come down to the evidence, the lawyers and the experts on both sides. Most of us do not know what the evidence is and, even if we did, we're not qualified to interpret it. Lawyers and experts sometimes tell you what they think you want to hear, especially when they get paid either way.
THAT IDEA OF A "CLEAN WIN"
A pro-CFCB verdict, based on technicalities that are unintelligible to the masses, will only weaken people's faith in FFP and anger City fans. A City acquittal, based on those same technicalities, will cast doubt on the CFCB's competence, hurt FFP even more and do nothing for those who continue to believe they have been flouting the rules all along.
A clear and uncontroversial acquittal would be disastrous for FFP and raise serious questions about why City have been targeted to this degree. It would fully clear their name and allow UEFA's leadership -- lest we forget, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin inherited the FFP apparatus from his predecessor, Michel Platini -- to get to work with reforming the system and the CFCB. It would hurt UEFA in the short term, but longer-term would be good for both football and the organisation since FFP, as a regulatory instrument, needs reform.
As for a clear and uncontroversial guilty verdict? Well, it would cause massive reputational and economic damage to Manchester City and could prompt shareholders to hold an internal inquest to establish whether they put their trust in the wrong people at the wrong time. And whether those people took liberties with the good name and reputation of a club and fan base that have roots stretching back 140 years.