Thursday 23 May 2019

Paul Hayward: 'UEFA prepare to deliver Man City power play from their own shaky ground'

Pep Guardiola. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Pep Guardiola. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

From top to bottom on Sunday, Manchester City looked like a success story, from the club chefs who were name-checked on to the pitch for the trophy presentation to the Catalan execs who moved in tight formation around Pep Guardiola as he digested the club's fourth Premier League title in eight years.

From Brian Kidd right through to the absent Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, City were intent on asserting their ownership of English football.

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Maybe European football, too, one day. But first they have to stay in it.

Guardiola's Champions League record is less impressive than his domestic resume at the Etihad and his club may have found a new way to get knocked out of Europe.

Unlikely, but the threat nevertheless looms.

Midway between their defence of the league title and an FA Cup final against Watford on Saturday, a cloud partly obscures City's sun.

Reports - which City have called "extremely concerning" - confirm an expectation that first surfaced in January when a former Belgian prime minister, Yves Leterme, spoke in his role as chairman of the investigatory panel of Uefa's independent financial control board.

Leterme has led a Uefa investigation into whether City circumvented Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules for a second time and misled the authorities about their accounting - claims denied by City, after the German media outlet 'Der Spiegel' published what it claimed to be hacked internal emails and financial details.

In January, Leterme said: "If it is true what has been written, there might be a serious problem. This can lead to the heaviest punishment: exclusion from the Uefa competitions."

With the findings due for release this week, the prospect looms of City possibly being expelled from the Champions League for a year - an outcome that would be painful and shaming, assuming the recommendation was acted upon and City's subsequent legal counter-attack failed to stop it.

The first point is to recognise the dissonance between City's brilliance, Guardiola's management skills and the threat that hangs over them.

City have adopted an aggressive stance on this since the slew of 'Der Spiegel' claims broadened the debate about FFP from one of new-money-versus-old to one about alleged deception.

City said: "We will not be providing any comment on out-of-context materials purported to have been hacked or stolen from City Football Group and Manchester City personnel and associated people. The attempt to damage the club's reputation is organised and clear."

From there, the problems of interpretation and analysis multiply in a very modern way, with people questioning UEFA's motives in creating FFP in the first place (to protect the old guard from non-European billionaires and sovereign wealth funds?), to UEFA's shaky moral authority these days to specific questions of alleged deceit.

In other words, even if you dislike a set of rules, you are obliged to obey them, not find a means of circumvention while pretending to comply. Again, City deny doing any of this.

With one breach on their record already from 2014, when they were fined £49 million and accepted transfer restrictions, City knew they were facing steeper punishments if found guilty a second time.

Transfer bans can be absorbed with forward planning but a 12-month expulsion from the Champions League in 2020-21 would be a more stigmatising penalty that City would undoubtedly fight in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

History tells us that when huge organisations collide the best lawyers end up with new holiday homes and a threat is scaled back to a point of compromise.

What starts as a recommendation to throw a club out of the Champions League ends up as a suspended sentence, a bigger fine and other forms of punishment.

So, the image of Guardiola being denied entry to the Champions League in what could be his final season as City manager hardly chimes with what we know about how institutional power works.

Even if any penalty were to be watered down under legal challenge, this is a defining power play between a governing body that sends Europa League finals to Baku and is lenient on stadium racism and a club who seem to believe they are persecuted by vested interests.

An era-defining judgment looms.

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