Reports that Uefa investigators are to recommend Manchester City be banned from the Champions League for a year are certainly eye-catching. According to the New York Times, the European governing body’s sleuths have spent almost a year investigating leaks that allege rule-breaking, and will now push for a competition ban, though that would be subject to forceful legal challenge by City. The accusations centre on the club’s alleged attempts to circumvent financial fair play regulations via disguised cash injections from their Abu Dhabi owners, as well as suggestions that City misled authorities in statements provided to resolve an earlier case.
The great puzzle is why misfortune and accusation continue to dog Manchester City in this fashion. It was only in 2014 that the club were fined by Uefa over a previous rule breach, which saw them accept some restrictions on transfers and a £49m fine. In fact, City never paid the full fine, forfeiting only £17m of prize money three years later. Alas, this doesn’t seem to have been the end of it, if documents released over the past year via the Football Leaks website are to be believed. City doesn’t say they aren’t to be believed, only that they are not to be paid any attention to. Time and again they have been forced to characterise this or that leaked email as “hacked”, “stolen”, “out of context”, or “an organised and clear attempt” to besmirch the club’s reputation. Though not, as it goes, “false”.
But what of the Uefa investigators, meanwhile, who I like to picture as European football’s internal affairs division? Are they the sort of pen-pushers who have no experience of the frontline job, who are remorseless sticklers for by-the-book procedure, and don’t understand that the maverick cop – in this case, Manchester City Football Club – has to bend those rules a bit to get results? Or are they in the Line of Duty AC-12 mould – willing to absorb all the slings and arrows because they serve a higher moral purpose? You have to hope it’s the latter. Their Ted Hastings, either way, is former Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme, and a veteran of the political crisis in that country when Belgium forewent the pleasure of a government for 535 days. Even so, his current gig is challenging.
Of course, all internal affairs divisions suffer from a certain lack of love from those whom they are charged with investigating. Last year, leaked emails suggested that when Uefa investigator Jean-Luc Dehaene died in 2013, one City lawyer allegedly emailed a colleague with the epitaph: “One down, six to go”.
Back when Fifa’s president, Gianni Infantino, was still Uefa’s general secretary another leaked document allegedly stated a City lawyer had imparted to Infantino club chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak’s views on punishing them with a fine. According to this lawyer, Al Mubarak would “rather spend £30m on the 50 best lawyers in the world to sue them for the next 10 years.” This, City allegedly informed Infantino, was a great chance for Uefa “to avoid the destruction of their rules and their organisation”.
Mmm. It is rather difficult not to see the whole problem crystallised in that reported comment. Multimillion pound fines are essentially a parking ticket to the wealth of the Abu Dhabi-based owners, just as the $5bn fine recently levied on Facebook by the FTC was a parking ticket, swiftly characterised by analysts as “a bargain”.
The Stern professor and author Scott Galloway talks about something called the “algebra of deterrence”. As he defines it, when a deterrent is effective, it is because “the likelihood or the probability of getting caught, times the likely fine, is greater than the upside of continuing to engage in that activity”. Clearly, it is essential that deterrents are set at a level which actually deters. If not, the so-called deterrent actually ends up not simply being ineffective, but value-accretive to the entity it is supposed to punish.
This is what happened with Facebook: the ridiculous fine saw the firm’s stock leap as soon as it was made public. As Galloway summarised, it showed the world “that they can continue to engage in the behaviour and it’s going to cost them two weeks of cash flow”. So this kind of “deterrent” is anything but – it actively enables the behaviour it was supposed to punish. On this reading, a government – or, let’s say, a governing body – which indulges in parking ticket fines essentially stops being a countervailing force and becomes a co-conspirator. Galloway’s solution as far as Facebook goes is to “add a zero to that fine, and restore the algebra of deterrence.”
As far as Manchester City or any rulebreaking European club goes, then, Uefa needs to think beyond what are basically parking ticket fines. Either they enforce an effective deterrent – a monster fine or competition ban - or they essentially become a helpful employee of those same clubs. Unfortunately, their track record in understanding deterrence is wildly uninspiring, from City’s last fine, to the litany of attempts to deal with racist chanting down the years. As Kick It Out put it in the wake of the abuse England suffered in Montenegro: “fines won’t do. Extended stadium bans or tournament expulsion are what’s needed.”
And so with clubs who refuse to play by Uefa’s rules. Either Uefa has to act punitively enough to show the rulebreakers who is boss – admittedly difficult, given the club’s financial powers and their reported aggression – or Uefa effectively works for the rulebreakers. If it is the latter, perhaps they could take inspiration from F1, and install a parallel competition to the Champions League. Call it the Accountants’ Championship, so we all know where we are.