Manchester City Financial Inquiry Moves Closer to a Ruling

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MANCHESTER, England — Manchester City, one of the biggest clubs in soccer and the Premier League champions for two years running, is one step away from a ban on participating in the Champions League after investigators asked for a ruling on whether the team misled European soccer’s financial regulators, the sport’s governing body in Europe said on Thursday.

UEFA, the governing body, confirmed that Yves Leterme, a former Belgian prime minister who now serves as the chief investigator of the unit charged with overseeing the finances of individual clubs, had referred the case to officials for a ruling.

The move indicates that Leterme believes his investigators have found sufficient evidence to punish Manchester City for misleading UEFA over the source of the club’s income.

The New York Times reported on Monday that investigators believe that Manchester City should be banned from the prestigious Champions League for at least a year for their interactions with investigators and licensing authorities looking into whether the club kept within cost control regulations, a policy commonly known as financial fair play.

City responded furiously to the announcement on Thursday, criticizing what it described as “a wholly unsatisfactory, curtailed and hostile process” and a decision that “contains mistakes, misinterpretations and confusions fundamentally borne out of a lack of due process.”

The club said it had provided “a comprehensive body of irrefutable evidence” to Leterme and his team, and, as it has throughout the investigation, reiterated that the “accusation of financial irregularities remains entirely false.” The fact that the investigators’ conclusions had been, in the club’s words, “leaked” to The New York Times, was “indicative of the process overseen by Mr. Leterme.”

In its statement, Manchester City said it was confident that the club would be exonerated when its case was heard by an “independent judicial body,” a description that applies to the Adjudicatory Chamber of UEFA that will issue the ruling. But the comment could also suggest that Manchester City was prepared to take the case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, the ultimate arbiter of such disputes, if necessary.

A team of finance and governance experts, led by Leterme, has been examining City’s case for months, after the whistle-blowing platform Football Leaks obtained a trove of emails that appeared to show that the club had overinflated elements of its sponsorship and commercial income to disguise what were, in effect, cash injections from its owner.

The club has not commented on the content of the emails, saying only that the publication of the messages in the German magazine Der Spiegel was a “clear and organized attempt” to damage the club’s reputation.

The referral of the case to the Adjudicatory Chamber does not offer any insight about how the club might be punished. The chamber can dismiss the case, follow the recommendations of the investigators, or modify the proposals.

The punishments could include a fine, a ban from UEFA competitions, or the stripping of a title or award, though the latter is not relevant because City has not, under current ownership, won a European trophy. The eventual decision can be overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

There is an enormous amount at stake, not just for Manchester City but also for UEFA. The club is likely to contest any punishment, and the governing body’s ability to investigate cases in the future could be seriously compromised if this one were to collapse.

Failure in the Manchester City case could be met with resignations from UEFA’s investigators, who might conclude that their reputations would be damaged by the organization’s inability to enforce its own legislation and the impression that, when faced with a challenge from a powerful club, the concept of financial fair play was meaningless.

For City, whose ownership is linked to the Abu Dhabi royal family, there is a risk of considerable loss of prestige. The ownership of the club is perhaps Abu Dhabi’s most high-profile overseas project, and winning the Champions League has been a major goal in efforts to turn City into an international powerhouse.

Credit: Manchester City Financial Inquiry Moves Closer to a Ruling