Manchester City’s moment of truth is looming. This morning’s draw in Nyon will map out a route to the Champions League final for Pep Guardiola’s team but excitement over the resumption of European football’s most prestigious tournament must be tempered by what lies beyond the final in Lisbon on 23 August.
On Monday the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne is expected to deliver its verdict on City’s appeal against the two-year Champions League ban handed down by Uefa for the club’s breaches of financial fair play rules. If the suspension is upheld, even the prospect of winning the competition this season will be soured.
City have consistently and sometimes aggressively denied any financial irregularities, saying they have “irrefutable evidence” that there has been no wrongdoing. Uefa has been equally insistent that its case is watertight. The first suggestions that the club were bending the regulations by inflating sponsorship deals came when the Football Leaks website released a cache of hacked emails two years ago which were published in Der Spiegel, the German magazine. Sources close to Uefa maintained that the evidence that led to the ban did not originate from any illegally-obtained information but from documents provided by the club. The three-man CAS panel listened to witnesses and assessed submissions from both parties in June. They have spent the past month preparing their verdict.
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Little information has been forthcoming from either side after the appeal. Uefa was chided by CAS at a previous hearing over leaks to the media and Nyon has gone to great lengths to ensure there has been no repeat of the situation.
The panel of arbitrators consists of Rui Botica Santos, a Portuguese lawyer, Professor Ulrich Haas from the University of Zurich and Andrew McDougall, a Paris-based QC. There were some eyebrows raised when McDougall was appointed because his firm, White & Case, have extensive links to Abu Dhabi, the emirate that owns City. However, McDougall – along with Haas – was on the panel that dismissed the club’s attempt to block Uefa’s investigation in November last year. The QC is widely regarded as one of Europe’s finest legal minds and his integrity is unimpeachable.
If the ban is upheld, City may pursue the matter further through the Swiss courts. The issue would not be resolved before next season’s Champions League campaign begins, however, and any exile from the competition could have serious implications. Kevin de Bruyne has already suggested that he will consider his future in the light of any ban and others in the squad are likely to take a similar view.
The financial implications are severe, too. Uefa has already fined City £27million as part of the initial sentence and a two-year suspension would cause a significant drop in revenue. The club earned in the region of £93million from last season’s Champions League and missing out would leave a huge hole in the budget.
Guardiola will be focusing today on the draw for the quarter and semi-finals that will outline the path to the final. City still have to complete their last-16 tie but are in a strong position going into the second leg at the Etihad after beating Real Madrid 2-1 in the Bernabeu in February. The Catalan’s primary mission at the club is to win the Champions League and everything is focused on achieving that aim in August. The 49-year-old has one more year on his contract and even if he leads the team to glory in Lisbon, an upheld ban might affect his thinking about what to do next in his career.
For Uefa, losing the case would be a disaster. The ruling body’s financial regulations would be in tatters. Whichever way the decision goes, Nyon will be under pressure to publish the original judgement that led to the ban. The workings of Uefa have often been opaque and the lack of transparency has allowed conspiracy theorists free rein. Last year the governing body agreed that decisions should be made public after appeals to CAS had been completed. The footballing public deserves the opportunity to scrutinise Uefa’s workings irrespective of next week’s ruling.
The day of the Champions League draw is normally a time of optimism. City have to put that positivity on hold until CAS has its say next week.
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