Alan Hubbard

Is it a mere coincidence that the two biggest and most successful clubs in England's football Premier League and rugby union Premiership have both been found guilty of major financial malpractice? I think not.

Rugby union’s Saracens and football’s Manchester City now face uncertain futures after falling foul of fiscal fair play rules in the pursuit not so much of greed but of power.

Just a few months ago, London club Saracens, the Premiership champions, were docked 35 points and fined £5.4 million ($7 million/€6.5 million) after an independent panel found them guilty of breaching the salary cap. It was their second offence.

The panel found that the club had failed to disclose payments to players in each of the past three seasons and additionally that the club had exceeded the ceiling for payments in each season. Saracens have won multiple trophies - they are five-times English champions and three-times European champions in the past nine seasons.

The club initially said they would appeal but subsequently held their hands up, apologised unreservedly and accepted relegation as a further punishment after admitting they would not come within the salary cap this season either.

City’s punishment from UEFA for breaching their Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations, banishment from the Champions League for the next two seasons and a £25 million ($32.5 million/€30.1 million) fine, has sent shockwaves through football.

Maro Itoje is among the England stars who could be playing in the second division next season ©Getty Images
Maro Itoje is among the England stars who could be playing in the second division next season ©Getty Images

The reigning English champions were found to have circumvented FFP rules between 2012 and 2016. Now there is a serious risk that if their appeal to the Court for Arbitration for Sport (CAS) isn’t successful the Premier League itself may impose a points deduction. And City are already 25 points adrift of Liverpool with little or no hope of retaining the title.

They won their first title in 2011-2012 and second in 2013-2014, both within the time period UEFA has adjudicated upon. Serious questions are now raised about the future of some of their star players - Raheem Sterling and Sergio Agüero among them - and manager Pep Guardiola who, at the moment, is saying he will stay with the club come what may.

UEFA launched a probe after documents published in the German media suggested the club had inflated sponsorship deals with firms linked to their Abu Dhabi ownership. In other words, cooking the books.

Like most financial wheeling and dealing in football it is all extremely complicated, but in a nutshell the suggestion is that City were in inflating their income from sponsorship deals such as that with Etihad Airways. Under UEFA regulations, the more income the club has the more it can spend on players.

There are several points the club will be expected to mount in their defence, per BBC Sport:

  • "That they deny breaching FFP regulations and have 'irrefutable evidence' to prove it, despite UEFA's guilty verdict."
  • "The suggestion - strongly denied - that UEFA pre-determined its decision because of alleged leaks to the media last year that correctly predicted the referral of the case to the club financial control body's adjudicatory chamber."
  • "That the leaked emails which appear to show City deceived UEFA - and which were published by German magazine Der Spiegel - were obtained illegally and were 'out-of-context materials purportedly hacked or stolen', so should therefore be deemed inadmissible."

According to CAS this argument was "not without merit" when it rejected City's attempt to get UEFA's case thrown out before a verdict was reached last year. CAS also said the leaks were "worrisome" and an intense legal battle legal battle is inevitable.

Manchester City are into the last 16 of this season's Champions League - a competition they have never won ©Getty Images
Manchester City are into the last 16 of this season's Champions League - a competition they have never won ©Getty Images

Compared to Saracens, City’s reaction is aggressive but UEFA suggests the club never really complied with the investigation. So is this the end of megabucks Man City as a 'super-club'?

Two years out of European competition and the millions they will lose in revenue because of it will have a severe impact on how Guardiola plans to restructure his squad, should he stay.

If their appeal is rejected, City also face the possibility of being stripped of the Premier League title won in 2013-2014 if a separate investigation finds they had breached financial rules, which City deny.

The salutary punishment has done immeasurable damage to the club's reputation, adding to the controversy surrounding owners already accused of using the club to furnish or 'sportswash' Abu Dhabi's image and divert from its questionable human rights record.

A punishment that has tainted the team's achievements, thrown the future of players, manager and finances into doubt, and could yet see the Premier League dock points and strip titles.

Soon after the formation of the Premier League it was dubbed “The Greed Is Good League“, but as with Saracens it was not a case of the profit line in the annual accounts being prioritised but building a side good enough to dominate their respective worlds.

In terms of reputation alone the cost to both clubs borders on the catastrophic, for they will forever be tainted by the smell of dishonesty. For what the former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger once succinctly called "financial doping".