The sale of Manchester United is set to test European rules designed to protect soccer from the integrity risks of owners controlling multiple clubs.
Three widely expected bids to buy the most storied brand in English soccer are closely tied to clubs already established in UEFA competitions like the Champions League, or have ambitions to break into the elite.
State sovereign wealth funds from Qatar and Saudi Arabia already bought Paris Saint-Germain and Newcastle, respectively, and British industrialist Jim Ratcliffe, a lifelong Man United fan, owns French club Nice.
UEFA first fought a legal case against “multi-club ownership” 25 years ago, and only this month warned of the risks this industry model poses for collusion on the field and in player transfers.
The European soccer body has rules to bar clubs from its competitions in any season if owners have “decisive influence” over two clubs which qualify. A key test case was resolved in June 2017 after an investigation into Red Bull’s ownership of Leipzig and Salzburg. UEFA let both clubs enter the next Champions League.
Other UEFA cases on separate matters in recent years involving PSG and Manchester City, plus the French club’s president, either were closed or ended with less severe consequences than had seemed possible during investigations.
UEFA declined comment Friday and likely won’t take a position on Man United’s next owner until the season ends. Entries for next season’s competitions will be clear after the Champions League final on June 10.
Article 5 of regulations in each UEFA competition — the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League — is about integrity and multi-club ownership.
Clubs cannot hold shares or have management control in another club taking part in a UEFA competition, nor can individuals and legal entities have ownership or management control over more than one club.
It is defined as “being able to exercise by any means a decisive influence in the decision-making of the club.”
Ratcliffe’s company, INEOS, would have a clear conflict. Could Qatar present an ownership group at Man United claiming to be separate from state-backed Qatar Sports Investments at PSG? It could be difficult to achieve.
UEFA requires the club that qualified for “the most prestigious” competition to take its place while the other is excluded. The next tiebreaker is which club finished higher in its domestic league.
A loophole to let both clubs play is if one qualified directly to the Champions League and the other qualified for the Europa Conference League. In that scenario, the two teams could not cross paths in the same competition.
In the quarterfinals of the 1997-98 European Cup Winners’ Cup, three of the eight teams — AEK Athens, Slavia Prague and Vicenza — were part-owned by the same investor, known as ENIC. The company best known for owning Tottenham also had stakes in Rangers and Basel.
Weeks later, the UEFA executive committee introduced the multi-club ownership rule. Slavia was accepted in the next UEFA Cup and AEK was excluded.
The clubs appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which ruled in their favor, saying UEFA “violated its duties of good faith and procedural fairness” enacting the rule so quickly.
Enforcement was delayed, and in 2001 a conflict with Canal+ owning stakes in two UEFA Cup teams, PSG and Servette, led the broadcaster to sell the Swiss club.
The anticipated potential conflict between Leipzig and Salzburg arrived in 2017. UEFA’s club finance investigators highlighted the “unusually high level of player loans/transfers” between the clubs and their “common visual identity/similar branding.”
However, Salzburg said it “removed certain individuals who were allegedly linked to Red Bull,” a cooperation deal with Leipzig was ended, and sponsorship by Red Bull was scaled back.
UEFA then accepted there was “insufficient evidence” of shared ownership. The teams eventually met in the 2018-19 Europa League and Salzburg won both games.
If Man United’s new ownership ties are examined, the UEFA club investigation panel is now led by Sunil Gulati, an economics professor and former president of United States soccer federation.
Tough words from UEFA came last week in its annual financial study of clubs and leagues.
“The rise of multi-club investment has the potential to pose a material threat to the integrity of European club competitions, with a growing risk of seeing two clubs with the same owner or investor facing each other on the pitch,” UEFA wrote.
They identified “more than 180 clubs worldwide” in multi-club investment structure projects — about a five-fold increase in a decade — involving the careers of more than 6,500 players.
The trend “has the potential to distort transfer activity,” the UEFA document said, with a risk of transfer fees set “at prices that suit investors, rather than at fair values.”
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