In a long-rumored punishment – that everyone thought they’d be able to wiggle their way out of – Manchester City has been banned from all UEFA competitions for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, as well as fined a not insignificant €30 million (approx $32.5 million). As with most punishments of this sort, it is subject to appeal, which the club has already announced in a strongly worded statement.
While it won’t affect City in their current run in Champions League – which resumes next week – and we are likely still a few months away from a final decision on the appeal from Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS). In the meantime, let’s take a look the impact the suspension will have in England and Europe going forward, at least when it comes to Champions League qualification. But first, let’s briefly talk about the financial irregularities that led UEFA to this point.
How City Got Here
The UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations are often criticized as hurting small clubs across Europe while allowing the bigger clubs to get away with financial shenanigans to further separate the “haves” from the “have nots” in Europe. The continuing domination – as well as the arrival of non-traditional ownership groups from outside of Europe – of the top clubs in Europe has led many to question whether the FFP Regulations have been met with the intended results.
The exact financial irregularities Manchester City is alleged to have committed is in regards to sponsorship income from 2012-2016. Basically, as revealed as part of the “Football Leaks” from Der Spiegel in the fall of 2018, the owner of Manchester City, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, was funding the transformation of the club from his own pocket instead of through the reported sponsorship deals that the club reported to UEFA every year. Primarily, the club reported that a sponsorship deal from Etihad Airlines was worth £67.5m annually, when only £8m was actually coming from the airline. The difference was simply coming from Sheikh Mansour, and the illicit spending allowed Manchester City to ascend to the top of English – and European – football, perhaps a bit quicker than they probably should have, all things considered.
There’s more, and I encourage you to read more of the football leaks reporting, but let’s take a look for what this means for Manchester City in the short-term, especially in England.
Manchester City in England
City is the defending Premier League champion, and while they were unlikely to catch the dominant Liverpool this season, they currently find themselves in second place behind the Reds. A second place finish would be enough to get Manchester City a huge payout – we’ll have to wait and see if the English Football League or Premier League punish City for this transgression as well – as well as a return trip to the group stage of Champions League next season. Furthermore, Manchester City is currently scheduled to play Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup final on 1 March, and the winner of that tournament typically gets a berth in Europe League the following season. But with City currently banned from competing in Europe, does this mean that Villa will advance to Europa League in their stead? That remains to be seen.
Also, due to the suspension of the club, there is already rumblings about the future of Pep Guardiola as the leader of the club going forward. Guardiola has an option in his contract – which currently runs through the 2021 season – to “mutually” leave the club if certain criteria are not met at the end of any season. This has led some to speculate that an absence from Europe for two years might be too much for the Spaniard, who would likely have a stable of suitors from top European clubs if he made himself a free agent at the end of the season. One question that remains is if English dominance is enough, or if he truly wants to find glory in Europe elsewhere beyond this season, especially considering the tough draw against Real Madrid in this season’s Round of 16 that begins next week.
New European Participants?
The ban of Manchester City, should it be upheld on appeal, results in an interesting shift in the participants in UEFA competition from England next season. Seven clubs from England qualify for Champions League and Europa League, with the top four clubs heading to Champions League. The bottom three spots in Europa League are officially reserved for the 5th place finisher, the winner of the Carabao Cup, and the winner of the FA Cup. In recent seasons, the cup winners have been clubs that have already qualified to Europe based on their league position, so the 6th and 7th place teams take their place.
If it ends up being the top seven again this season, this is what your European qualifiers from England would look like if the season ended today:
- Leicester City
- Sheffield United
- Tottenham Hotspur (6th)
- Wolverhampton Wanderers (7th)
- Everton (8th)
Three of those clubs – Liverpool, Chelsea, and Tottenham Hotspur – are regular participants in Europe. The other four have a much more limited history. Leicester City made an appearance in Champions League after their surprising 2015-16 Premier League title, but prior to that, they had only three previous appearances in UEFA competition, most recently in 2000-01. Wolverhampton Wanderers are still alive in this seasons’ Europa League, their first trip to Europe since 1980-81! Everton has a slightly extensive European history, with a Europa League appearance during the 2017-18 season not that long ago.
But Sheffield United, who just returned to the Premier League this season and has miraculously found some success, has never played in Europe. Though the Blades are currently in position to do that regardless of what happens to City, they are also helped by City’s absence in the UEFA pecking order. If Aston Villa does indeed get the Carabao Cup spot due to City’s ineligibility, it would be their first trip to Europe since the 2010-11 season, and due to their terrible league play this season, they might end up doing it as a Championship club. Now that would be something!
What Comes Next
We’ll obviously have to wait and see what happens with the appeal, but I would expect Manchester City to be missing at least next season’s Champions League tournament. Will that result in players at the tail end of their prime jumping ship to other European powers to seek the top trophy in Europe? Will City be punished further by England, further impacting player movement in the upcoming off season? This could have far reaching consequences not only in England but across Europe.
Nonetheless, I don’t see this punishment as being enough to change the way things work for the top clubs in Europe. They’ll continue to make money hand over fist and have the best players lining up to join them, while the lower-table clubs will spend themselves into near bankruptcy trying to keep up (and stay up) from season to season. Should the punishment stick, however, maybe UEFA will finally have some teeth to enforce their fair play regulations.
Until next time…