Football must learn from Saracens' punishment
Actions need consequences.
There was a game when I was in school that pops into my head every so often. Played between a group of at least two, participants would take it in terms to say the word one after the other, each time getting louder and louder, until the loser was decided by who the teacher heard first. The word tended to rhyme with 'shmeenis'. In the murky world of sporting financial management, Saracens decided to play that game by themselves. Rather than doing it from the back of the class, they did it from the top of the table. Rather than getting progressively louder, they shouted and screamed 'shmeenis' while banging their fists on the table, until the teacher had no option but to turn around and kick them out of the class.
Saracens got what they deserved. They cheated, they were caught, they were punished. They were given a chance to put it right, they didn’t, they were punished even more severely. Despite ardent and baffling defence from some quarters, the reigning English and European champions will play their rugby in the second tier of their national league next season, and unless they manage to win the Champions Cup in May they will not be taking part in the competition next season. It is likely their squad will disintegrate, either temporarily or permanently, and the road to redemption looks long and unforgiving for Mark McCall's side.
Saracens have been the dominant team at home and abroad in the last five years. In that time, they have won 4 of 5 available Premiership titles and 3 of the last 5 Champions Cups. To drag them through the process, find them guilty and then effectively kick them out of the competitions they have been so instrumental in must have been, in some ways, a difficult decision. Premiership Rugby had to rip the crown off their own king's head and banish them to the outer lands. Ultimately, fairness won out. Regardless of the implication for the league, the players and the fans; there were rules, they were broken and they were reprimanded. There was a certain level of nerve in making that decision, though.
Holding the highest amongst us to account is something that UEFA and football in general can learn from. When Financial Fair Play (FFP) was first mooted over a decade ago in 2009, there was a clear need to act against teams operating outside their means across the European game. At the time, a Deloitte report showed that the 20 Premier League teams held accumulated debts of £3.1 billion. These new rules would force teams to balance their books, and would attempt to restrict clubs with wealthy backers from distorting the transfer market. The punishments ranged from warnings to fines all the way to expulsion from flagship European tournaments.
It just hasn’t really happened so far.
Having postponed the implementation of FFP by a couple of years to allow teams make the adjustments needed, a number of teams started to fall foul of the new rules. Manchester City were fined £49 million in 2014, had a transfer cap placed on them and had their European squad allowance reduced for the following season after a one billion pound spending spree under Sheikh Mansour’s ownership. Mansour is the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, and took over the club back in 2008. The only other state-owned club in the world, PSG, suffered similar punishments in the same year, although they hit subsequent targets set by UEFA and were repaid two thirds of their €60 million fine in the following years. The French club is of course backed by Qatar, who will host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.
So far, so good. Rules broken, punishments given out.
But it didn't seem to deter the two superclubs. Since that fine in 2014, Manchester City have won three Premier League titles, four League Cups and an FA Cup. PSG have notched up five Ligue 1 titles, four French Cups and four League Cups since their first slap on the financial wrist. In that time, the two have spent almost £1.8 billion on transfers between them. Both have been investigated again for breaching Financial Fair Play.
In June of 2018, Uefa’s Club Financial Control Body (CFCB) shut down an investigation into PSG relating to alleged breaches of the FFP rules. However, just nine days later it was announced that the decision had been requested by the chairman of the CFCB to be reviewed. It was then decided that PSG in fact did have a case to answer, and the case was reopened. This was thrown out on a technicality after PSG appealed the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, stating that UEFA had broken their own rules by reopening the case after two months rather than the 10 days stated by their own rules. The ruling by the Court is final, the case cannot be reopened.
Manchester City are a little further behind in the process. They too attempted to have the CAS stop their UEFA investigation, but the Court wouldn’t admit the appeal because the potential punishment for City if they were to be found guilty hasn’t been decided upon yet. The investigation of City’s finances came after Der Spiegel and Football Leaks released a series of articles in November of 2018 accusing the club of deliberately misleading UEFA about their sponsorship deals. It still remains possible that they could be excluded from the Champions League for a period of one year, similar to AC Milan being banned from taking part in the Europa League this season.
Football needs an example to be made. There needs to be genuine ramifications for clubs who clearly circumvent the rules. Until a team who have clearly benefitted from the illegality of their actions is adequately held to account, the other bold kids in the class will continue to not only make faces behind the teacher’s back, but call them names to their face and pull the chair out from them when they go to sit down.