Manchester City's fight against UEFA is as much about perception as it is the punishment

It’s about the punishment. Of course it’s about the punishment. It’s about Manchester City trying to somehow wriggle out of the enormous sentence it was handed, a penalty so severe that it represents a bigger threat to its dominance than even Liverpool.

But the club’s vociferous defense against its violations of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations – which led to a two-season Champions League ban for overvaluing the club’s income from sponsorship as a means of masking investment from its Abu Dhabi ownership – is about something else, too.

It’s about appearances. It’s about “financial doping”, as former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger once put it so aptly. It’s about the impression that City bought its way to the top, and that all of its success and records and plaudits were more to do with money than anything else.

As much as the club obviously and rightly fears the enormous implications of missing out on the biggest and most prestigious competition for two seasons, it is also seeking to avoid the pall cast over all its silverware the last decade.

Much like the asterisk now placed behind the Houston Astros’ 2017 World Series title in the wake of their sign-stealing scandal, City is surely nervous that suspicions will linger over its four Premier League titles, four League Cups and two FA Cups, all amassed under its Emirati ownership. After all that time and work and, yes, money to build Manchester’s middling second club into a powerhouse as a prestige play for the Emirati owners, to have some of the sheen scuffed off those prizes would sting.

Manchester City's image has been tarnished by the Champions League ban, and that's as consequential as anything to the club. (Photo by Tom Flathers/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)

That much is obvious in the defense the club is mounting. On Wednesday, club CEO Ferran Soriano gave an interview with the club website.

“I think the club has to say something,” the Spaniard said. “The most important I have to say today is that the allegations are not true – they’re simply not true. The owner has not put money in this club that has not been properly declared. We are a sustainable football club. We are profitable. We don’t have debt. Our accounts have been scrutinized many times by auditors, by regulators, by investors, and this is perfectly clear.”

And Soriano, previously a high-ranking executive with FC Barcelona, denied that the club had hampered the investigation, as UEFA contends. “We did cooperate with this process,” he said. “We delivered a long list of documents and support that we believe is irrefutable evidence that the claims are not true.”

Those comments were sandwiched by gripes about leaks of “stolen, out-of-context emails,” “the system” and bias, which is all very much the Manchester City way, based on little of substance. “We felt that we were considered guilty before anything was even discussed,” Soriano said. 

It’s true enough that the investigation was sparked by emails obtained by Football Leaks and published by Der Spiegel. But those messages were damning, leading UEFA down a trail of direct investment from the ownership through the team’s sponsor, Etihad, which is also owned by the Emirati royal family. 

Yet City remains steadfast in its stance that it did nothing wrong and that it’s been treated unfairly. 

Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano hinted at what really matters to the club in statements on the team website. (Photo by Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)

“All we’re looking for is a proper adjudication from an independent and impartial body that’s going to take the time to look at all the evidence and look at this without preconception,” Soriano said. “I’m also looking for an end to this undertone that we’re hearing all the time, that anything that we do, any result that we get is based only on money and not on talent or effort. The hundreds of people that work at this club know this is not true, that it is about effort and talent. So maybe at the end, this is an opportunity.”

And that last bit seems to be the crux of it.

City could probably settle this thing. It could negotiate with UEFA. It could plead to the Court of Arbitration in Sport that, yes, it made mistakes but the punishment was too severe. Chances are CAS reduces the penalty – and the 30 million euro fine – in any case. It has a habit of cutting UEFA’s punishments down, which is perhaps why the governing body meted out such a severe penalty, assuming that it would be halved. 

But City is just as concerned about the perception of such a penalty as the penalty itself. So only a complete vindication will do. Any acknowledgment of impropriety is unacceptable, even at the risk of more severe consequences.

Because when the whole point of your project is prestige, the stains become that much more noticeable.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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