It is the Champions League semi-final that Uefa dreaded. At least on the face of it. Tonight’s Paris Saint-Germain vs Manchester City tie may never have taken place had European football’s ruling body had the courage of its own convictions and fought to protect Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.
Instead, Uefa’s approach at the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne in both clubs’ appeals left lingering questions about the organisation’s competence. In each case observers were left wondering whether Uefa really wanted to win.
PSG came out of last week’s Super League crisis with credit. The French champions refused to join the 12 breakaway clubs. They upgraded their power base in the process, with their president, Nasser Al-Khelaifi, taking over as chairman of the European Club Association.
City were part of the dirty dozen but have emerged with less damage than the other members of England’s big six. The spin from the Etihad is that they were queasy about the venture from the start and City’s exit was the beginning of the end for the entire scheme. Sheikh Mansour, City’s owner and a senior member of Abu Dhabi’s ruling family, has not been subjected to the vitriol aimed at the ownership of Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal (Chelsea also got away lightly for withdrawing quickly). Uefa has reasons to be grateful to City and PSG.
It works both ways. City appealed to CAS last year after being suspended from the Champions League for two seasons as a consequence of being found guilty of inflating sponsorship deals with money proved by parties other than the named sponsors Etihad and Etisalat.
Uefa’s processes are relatively straightforward. Questions about the financial behaviour of clubs are handled by two independent boards. The Investigatory Chamber (IC) looks at the evidence. If regulations have been broken, the Adjudicatory Chamber (AC) hands down punishment. After that, any appeals are conducted in-house at Nyon. Members of the independent committees were aghast at how Uefa handled the City case after it left their hands.
The first line of battle in any appeal to CAS is the composition of the three-judge panel. City nominated Andrew McDougal, QC, a Paris-based partner at White and Case international law firm. McDougal is the former chairman of the company’s operations council for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. White and Case have an office in Abu Dhabi and two of its biggest clients are Etisalat and Etihad. The case revolved around these City sponsors.
Under CAS rules, “arbitrators must be independent, [and have] no particular connection with any of the parties.” McDougal never acted personally for either of the sponsors and his impartiality is beyond question but many in the legal community were surprised that Uefa did not object to his presence as a matter of principle. The ruling body has never explained its rationale.
Even more bewildering is that City suggested the chairman of the judges, Rui Botica Santos, a Portuguese lawyer. Uefa responded – on the same day – agreeing with the appointment, “to avoid any delay.”
The ruling body stacked the deck against itself from the start by allowing City two choices out of three. But Uefa’s conduct during the appeal left many shaking their heads. It would have been hard for the panel not to find in favour of the English club.
City applied to introduce new witnesses, including Simon Pearce, a club director. Uefa could have blocked this. Indeed, its own statutes say that “parties shall not introduce new witnesses [or] new evidence.” The IC had asked for Pearce and other individuals to testify early in the process but City refused. Uefa did not object to this last-minute intervention.
The IC had also called for City to provide chains of emails that expanded on those revealed by the Football Leaks documents published by Der Spiegel in Germany. Under CAS regulations, the failure to produce documents or witnesses entitles the panel to draw negative inference. However, Uefa told the judges that the unseen emails were not necessary for the case. The ruling body said it was “satisfied that the evidence currently on record shows that the Appealed Decision is correct and that it should be confirmed by CAS.”
This statement could not have been more misguided. Because Uefa did not demand the correspondence trails, CAS said the “view of the majority of the Panel is not only that no adverse inferences can be drawn from MCFC’s failure to produce these documents, but also that MCFC cannot be sanctioned for failing to do so.”
The court decided in City’s favour, saying that the alleged offences were “time-barred,” ruling 2-1 that the breaches of FFP rules had occurred before a five-year cutoff for prosecution. Uefa’s conduct during the appeal was so inept that some wondered whether the ruling body really wanted to win.
Could Nyon’s litigators perform any worse? Against PSG, they made the failed City appeal look proficient.
The charges against the Qatari-owned French club were similar: over-inflation of sponsorship deals. One transaction in question was so over the top that it made City’s transgressions look like small change. The Qatar Tourism Authority (QTA) pumped €100 million into PSG per season, financing the transfers of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and the rest of the big-name squad.
The original IC investigation cleared PSG but the AC sent the file back to be reassessed. A sports marketing company, Octagon Worldwide, was engaged to give a view on the merits of the QTA sponsorship. Octagon came back with a damning verdict: there was very little impact on tourism to Qatar and the estimated value was more in the region of €5 million. PSG produced their own study, which was close to the original valuation and Yves Leterme, the former Belgian prime minister and head of the IC, decided to use the French club’s figures. An almighty row loomed in Nyon.
In the meantime, PSG appealed on a technicality, claiming there was a 10-day deadline to review cases and the AC had exceeded the limit. Uefa agreed and did not even bother to turn up to CAS. The FFP regulations were already in tatters more than a year before City won in Lausanne.
In the melee over the proposed Super League, anger was directed at the megaclubs who instituted the breakaway but Uefa’s credibility requires scrutiny. Part of the imperative for the attempted schism was the fear that PSG and City, backed by unlimited state wealth, will bully the rest of the game with money. It is hard to have any sympathy with Real Madrid, Barcelona, United and Liverpool but Uefa failed to put any restraints on the two richest clubs in the game.
The thought of a Super League is an abomination but Uefa is equally rancid. Cash is king either way and the PSG-City semi-final is living proof of this.