Manchester City Cited Media Leaks in Failed Bid to Avoid Ban

Last spring, days after news reports revealed the English soccer champion Manchester City was facing expulsion from the Champions League, European soccer’s governing body confirmed the club was indeed in danger. Its investigators had found the club had breached financial control regulations to such an extent that it recommended the team be punished.

Manchester City reacted furiously, arguing leaks to the news media had seriously undermined the integrity of the investigation. The damage to City’s reputation, the team argued, was so serious that not only should the case be thrown out, but Manchester City also should be compensated by UEFA, the body that runs European soccer.

“UEFA has systematically breached, and continues to breach, its duty of confidence,” Manchester City wrote in its submission to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, adding that “leaks” and the decision to refer the club for punishments had caused the club “serious harm and loss.”

The details of City’s reaction to the threat of punishment were published Wednesday by the court, which rejected the appeal in November but only released its report on the case this week. In a 35-page document rejecting City’s appeal, the court detailed efforts by the club to bring an early end to a case that has captivated European soccer since details of City’s so-called financial doping were first published after a leak of internal club documents in 2018.

A ruling on Manchester City’s possible punishment had been expected late last year, and again last month. The delay of a resolution to the case has highlighted the difficulty the adjudicatory arm of UEFA’s financial control body has had in coming to a final decision — one that is likely to lead to an outcry, whatever decision is made.

Any failure to act on the recommendation of UEFA investigators would most likely be seen as a deathblow to the organization’s efforts to impose financial controls on its member clubs. But any penalty, and especially one that sees Manchester City ejected from the Champions League, the world’s richest club competition, will almost certainly lead to more legal action on behalf of the club, which is bankrolled by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan, a billionaire brother of the ruler of the United Arab Emirates.

And the ability of wealthy teams to avoid punishment is not without precedent; last year, UEFA cleared another Gulf-owned team, Paris Saint-Germain, of breaching financial rules, even though the evidence had suggested there was a case to answer.

Manchester City has vigorously denied wrongdoing, and its officials have warned UEFA that they will mount an aggressive response to any effort to punish the club or bar it from the Champions League. “The accusation of financial irregularities are entirely false,” City said in a statement. “The club’s published accounts are full and complete and a matter of legal and regulatory record.”

The case against Manchester City is rooted in the leak of a trove of internal documents obtained by a Portuguese computer hacker, Rui Pinto, and supplied to a group of European news media outlets, notably Germany’s Der Spiegel. News reports about the documents suggested the team had deceived officials responsible for UEFA’s cost control rules by misrepresenting the source of some of its sponsorship income, a key component in meeting regulations imposed on all teams participating in European club competitions.

That resulted in a monthslong investigation by a team led by the former Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme. News media outlets, including The New York Times, citing anonymous sources, reported that the outcome of the investigation was likely to be a recommendation that City, which had already been sanctioned for breaking the cost-control rules in 2014, faced a ban of at least one season from the Champions League, a trophy the club has never won but covets the most.

UEFA has never confirmed the recommendations of its investigators, only that they had referred the case to the organization’s adjudicatory chamber for a ruling.

Leterme, the documents revealed, reacted furiously to the charge against his panel, known as the Club Financial Control Body.

“I must vehemently reject your allegations of unlawful activities, either by myself or by any of the members of the UEFA CFCB, in particular of its investigatory chamber,” he wrote to City officials.

“Your allegations are groundless in the merits and unacceptable in tone. Please be advised that I will not continue such an exchange of correspondence and that I will not respond further to groundless accusations directed against me personally and/or against my fellow members.”

In rejecting City’s appeal, the court said its case was inadmissible because a ruling had yet to be made by UEFA’s adjudicatory chamber. City, the court panel noted, could lodge another appeal when a final decision was made.

UEFA and City have not commented on the details in the court document released Wednesday, which in parts did criticize UEFA. The court suggested the governing body’s behavior in a separate case involving A.C. Milan highlighted a “rather nontransparent internal policy.” It also said the leaks, details of which remain confidential, and have not been linked directly to UEFA or any of its officials, were “worrisome.”

The point that the panel questioned was how Leterme could be “so confident” the leaks did not come from his members.

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