European football association, UEFA, arranged secret settlements with Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain that allowed the clubs to cheat Financial Fair Play rules by hundreds of millions of euros, a new investigation by EIC Network can reveal.
Senior UEFA administrators, including the ex-secretary general and current FIFA president, Gianni Infantino, personally intervened to encourage settlements with big clubs, while the Club Financial Control Body (CFCB), the UEFA department that investigates rule breaches, aggressively pursued poorer clubs in the likes of Turkey and Romania.
While the big hitters in European football received fines that barely dented their multi-million euro budgets, smaller European clubs were banned from participating in UEFA tournaments, where the cash bonuses can be a lifeline to a struggling team.
In its defence, UEFA told the EIC Network that its decision and sanction system “took both UEFA and the clubs into unchartered territory,” adding that the association is “confident that any apparent inconsistencies that may seem evident to some, have been eliminated as the system has developed and become more familiar to all sides.”
The new revelations are based on a batch of tens of millions of Football Leaks documents obtained by German weekly magazine Der Spiegel and shared with The Black Sea and its partners in journalism network European Investigation Collaborations (EIC).
The combined dataset contains more than 70 million documents, around 3.4 terabytes, and is the biggest journalistic data leak to date. Over the past eight months, around 80 journalists and technologists from 15 media partners have collaborated to document and expose illegal or secret deals across the football industry from this trove and other sources.
The Black Sea and the EIC network partners will publish stories in the coming weeks, and the first exposé reveals how UEFA negotiated sweetheart settlements that covered up ‘financial doping’ by state-backed or oligarch-owned clubs.
Follow The Black Sea's Football Leaks project here
Hiding investments through sponsorship deals
Since 2010, UEFA has imposed Financial Fair Play rules on clubs qualifying for its main European competitions: the Europa League and the Champions League. These measures are designed to make European football more competitive by capping the money a club can lose in a year and curtailing super-rich owners from bailing out badly managed clubs through huge subsidies.
Without these rules, UEFA argues, a distorted market emerges, where clubs with billionaire backers can out-spend their competitors and attract premium quality players, coaches and facilities, creating a huge disparity even among top-flight teams.
But owners of several clubs have continued to supply excessive amounts to cover losses using highly inflated – and sometimes deceptive – sponsorship contracts, in a practice known as ‘financial doping’. This is the case of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain. Man City is owned, since 2010, by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, brother of Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the de facto ruler of Abu Dhabi. PSG is owned by Qatar Sports Investments, which is backed by the Emir of Qatar Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
When UEFA’s financial control body investigated both clubs’ sponsorship agreements it discovered that some ‘related parties’ were paying unprecedented amounts. The Qatar Tourism Authority furnished Paris Saint-Germain with between €700 million and €1.125 billion over a five-year period, according to the contract.
The subsequent findings concluded that these deals were spectacularly inflated: The independent experts hired by UEFA stated that the contracts, worth around €200 million per year at the beginning, had a real value between €3 and €5 million: 40 to 60 times less.
There was a similar story at Man City, albeit at a lower level. UEFA reported that Sheikh Mansour had “significant influence” over two of Man City’s Abu Dhabi sponsors, including the state investment fund Aabar, and that these contracts were inflated by at least three times the real market value.
Most of the €15 million from Anbar, however, appears to have come from the Sheikh himself. Emails in the Football Leaks collection show that, in May 2010, Man City director Simon Pearce emailed Aabar’s chief executive, Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny, about the arrangement and said: “The annual direct obligation for Aabar is GBP 3 million. The remaining 12 million GBP requirement will come from alternative sources provided by His Highness,” appearing to refer to owner Sheikh Mansour.
A spokesman for Aabar said they could not comment on “any information that came from what appears to be hacked or stolen emails.” Manchester City told EIC network that: “We will not be providing any comment on out of context materials purported to have been hacked or stolen from City Football Group and Manchester City personnel and associated people. The attempt to damage the Club’s reputation is organized and clear.” Shiekh Monsour did not answer emails.
Once the clubs’ inflated deals were excluded from their respective balance sheets, the losses ballooned. Under UEFA rules, deficits in excess of €5 million are forbidden and can result in exclusion from the Champions or Europa Leagues, competitions which can provide a club with many millions of euros in revenue.
Club shareholders can reduce any shortfalls through cash injections up to €15 million – now €10 million – but only via legitimate means. Overvalued sponsorship is not permitted.
Despite clear break-even breaches and evidence financial doping, the CFCB was unwilling to impose its own regulations and preferred to negotiate directly with the clubs. These negotiations resulted in a brazen cover-up of the practices the club financial control body was set up to penalise.
The backroom deals
According to information contained in the Football Leaks cache, Gianni Infantino, who left UEFA for FIFA in autumn 2015, stepped in to negotiate directly with the clubs under investigation. This resulted in secret settlements that hid the extent to which owners were exploiting sponsorship contracts to bankroll their clubs.
Infantino acted as an intermediary between his own organisation and Paris St-Germain and Man City to settle the disputes, belying claims made by UEFA to the EIC network that its control body, the CFCB, was an entity independent of interference from the secretary general.
The outcome of his negotiations with Paris St. Germain, for example, was that the club was permitted to continue accepting €100 million a year from its Qatari deals, far more than the market value as determined by UEFA’s auditors. In return, the club agreed to pay a conditional fine, and reduce its spending and annual deficit. Only the latter details of this arrangement were publicly disclosed.
In the case of Man City, Infantino brokered yet another settlement. On 8 May 2014, he travelled to London to talk directly with Man City’s CEO, Ferran Soriano, in what the businessman described as “a ‘secret’ meeting in London to try to agree the final deal.” When approached by EIC to explain this discussion, Soriano did not respond to requests for comment.
Infantino denied being involved in secret negotiations:.“No, No,” he said, “I was involved in the concept, the rules and so on,” In a written response later, FIFA answering on Infantino’s behalf, said the purpose of financial fair play was to “improve standards of financial management in European football, to reduce indebtedness, and to help clubs operate on the basis of their own resources, so they can be run as stable and sustainable businesses. ”
In this regard it has “been an economic success story for European football.”
Despite CFCB investigators determining that Man City’s contracts with the Emirates cheated the Financial Fair Play rules, by saving the club from a €233 million deficit, it still put a deal in place that let the club keep taking sponsorship cash above the permitted level. But both sides agreed to limit the financial doping to €26 million per year above the contracts’ real price. This, too, was kept secret.
PSG’s treatment was fair compared to others. While Infantino and UEFA were accommodating the needs of some of European football’s wealthiest owners, it was implementing a different approach to the smaller and less wealthy clubs, such as those from Eastern Europe.
A different rulebook in the East
The Black Sea analysed the financial fair play case files of several clubs in Turkey and Romania, and learned that in almost every Romanian instance, the investigatory chamber at UEFA pushed to have the clubs banned from its competitions – even though their offenses of unpaid debts were arguably much less serious that those by Man City or PSG.
The CFCB also aggressively pursued Turkish clubs, several of which were banned from playing in UEFA’s leagues, or have received sanctions after initial settlements.
From 2012, the same period UEFA negotiated settlements with the two billionaire-backed clubs above, eight Romanian (Targu Mures, Dinamo Bucharest, CFR CLUJ, FC Astra Giurgiu, Botosani, Rapid Bucharest, FC Petrolul Ploiesti and CS Pandurii Targu Jiu) and five Turkish teams – Bursaspor, Trabzonspor, Karabükspor Beşiktaş and Fenerbahce - fell foul of Financial Fair Play rules.
Clubs are prohibited under the regulations from having any “overdue payables towards football clubs, employees and social/tax authorities” and this was a major problem in Eastern Europe, where currencies are less stable.
At the time of their submissions to UEFA, Romanian teams were found to owe wages, taxes, and transfer fees, ranging from a few tens of thousands to up to €2.6 million. The CFCB investigators sent all the eight cases to UEFA’s adjudicatory chamber and recommended fines and exclusions from UEFA competitions for all but one.
This process seemed automatic. The adjudicatory chamber handled them by issuing fines and provisional bans to seven of the clubs, which would only be enforced if they failed to pay their debts within a short deadline.
While most teams managed to settle their bills, Rapid Bucharest, CFR Cluj and Targu Mures could not and were excluded from UEFA’s competitions. Rapid and Cluj at the time were undergoing insolvency proceedings, and UEFA even withheld a portion of Cluj’s UEFA prize money to settle its fair play fine.
“What UEFA did with the big clubs is immoral,” Botosani owner Valeriu Iftime told EIC network. “The smaller clubs have no voice, they have no chance. The business part of football has an interest for the big clubs to live in peace. We are somewhere at the edge of this world. I agreed for my club to be punished.”
He said that he understood that “from a branding point of view… that the big clubs must be supported,” but added that “maybe we can also grow together with them."
Botosani was the only club not given a automatic ban by the adjudicatory chamber, which refused to follow the advice the CFCB chief investigator. Its debts totaled €20,000.
In Turkey, the clubs Bursaspor, Beşiktaş, Trabzonspor, Karabükspor and Galatasaray faced investigations by UEFA. Beşiktaş and Galatasaray had also violated the rules on break-even deficits, where UEFA forbids a club from losing more than €5 million in a single year. But these misdemeanours were at a far lower level than those of Man City and many Western European clubs, which faced a similar probe.
Bursaspor has had a long and messy history with UEFA’s financial controls. In 2012, it was found by UEFA to be in breach of rules for having unpaid invoices to clubs, and fined €200,000. The club, based in Bursa, northwest Turkey, was then excluded from the Europa League for one year, a sentence only activated if the club fell foul of rules any time over the subsequent three years.
Two years later, in June 2014, the CFCB learned that Bursaspor owed its players around €3.3 million. Although the club reduced this debt to a little under €300,000 over the next few months, UEFA declared this was a violation, and not only implemented the previous exclusion, but also imposed a new one.
Bursaspor appealed both decisions at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, the body tasked with resolving disputes in sport. Some of club’s arguments were ambitious – it claimed, for example, that a rogue employee was to blame for unpaid wages – and ultimately the court sided with UEFA, handing the club a €250,000 and upholding the ban.
All the while, the club was also battling with CFCB over its €19 million deficit. This time CFCB agreed to a settlement and a fine. But Bursaspor’s case highlights how far the association was willing to go to enforce bans against smaller teams while making special efforts to appease larger clubs guilty of financial doping. Clubs with super rich owners are unlikely to suffer from unpaid bills.
Other Turkish teams were similarly pursued. The CFCB investigated Turkish clubs Trabzonspor and Karabükspor. Karabükspor had already settled an earlier case with the investigative chamber after it was found to have annual losses of around €6 million per year between 2012 and 2015. Its settlement obliged the club to become break-even compliant by 2016. When the time came, the club failed with a new, three-year breach of €19 million. The adjudicatory chamber activated the ban.
Trabzonspor’s breach of €22 million was far less than the big clubs let off by UEFA. The club’s owner declined to cover any of the deficit and so UEFA issued a fine and a suspended ban under a settlement agreement. Last year UEFA enforced a transfer ban after the club failed to meet the terms of the settlement.
Sinan Zengin, general manager of Trabzonspor, told The Black Sea that he felt that UEFA was now “following the FFP procedures better,” and there are recent “examples where the inflated sponsorship agreements were not accepted and cancelled.”
But he harshly criticised UEFA for not taking into consideration region problems, such as unstable currencies, and economic downturns, in places like Turkey, which is currently in the grip of a financial crisis. “Our country’s economic situation is not stable so our clubs face serious currency deficit and interest expenditures,” he said. “This creates an unfair situation for our clubs compared to the clubs who operate in stable economies… They have done this partially the last season but it is in no way sufficient.”
The CFCB did conduct settlement agreements with two Turkish clubs: Galatasaray and Beşiktaş.
Galatasaray's submissions to UEFA in 2013 revealed not only a huge debt within the company, but an aggregated deficit of more than €50 million. Galatasaray shareholders injected cash and the club reduce the breach to only €9.4 million.
The CFCB opted to sign a agreement with the club. But in 2016, when it learned Galatasaray’s losses had grown to €164 million, the financial body imposed a ban on transfers. This decision is now under review by UEFA.
But the auditor’s review of Galatasaray’s books at the time reveal the club acted largely honestly in its submission. When UEFA also opened an investigation in 2014 into the leading Istanbul football club, Beşiktaş, this was a different matter.
The club accounts revealed that its present and future finances were in bad shape. The club owed €105.5 million more than it had in assets. It also had a new break-even deficit of €141 million.
Besiktas had also provided UEFA with a forecast of its earnings and expenses for the coming year. When PriceWaterhouseCoopers audited these accounts, its investigators found that the club had provided false information that ultimately improved its finances by around €12 million. It overstated its sponsorship by at least €2.8 million and understated its losses by around €9 million.
Eventually, Beşiktaş was offered a settlement terms that included a €5.5 million fine and spending limitations.
When asked by The Black Sea about its financial affairs, and conduct during the CFCB investigation, a Beşiktaş’s press officer said by email: "These are not the questions I can answer. Who gave you my details?"
Although details are not included in the new data, UEFA also imposed transfer restrictions on Istanbul club Fenerbahce, in May 2016, for excessive deficits. Earlier this year, Fenerbahce’s president Alı Koç, from one of Turkey’s richest families, announced he would inject around €50 million of his own cash to save the club.
Follow The Black Sea's Football Leaks project here
Opening picture: PSG supporters, October 24, 2018. (Photo credit: FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images) via Guliver