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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Could Girona really cost Manchester City their Champions League place next season?

Girona are flying in La Liga.

The Catalan club are second in the table, six points ahead of much-more-famous neighbours and defending champions Barcelona and two behind leaders Real Madrid — who they play on Saturday evening, knowing they will go top with a win.

The top four finishers in the Spanish league each year automatically make the following season’s Champions League, so with 23 of the 38 matches played, Girona are in prime position to appear in Europe’s flagship competition for the first time.

It could be quite the achievement for their wider ownership, City Football Group (CFG), which owns stakes in 13 clubs worldwide including New York City in MLS, Australia’s Melbourne City, France’s Troyes, Italian club Palermo and Lommel of Belgium.

This would be the first time one of the sister clubs of City, CFG’s flagship side, have also reached the Champions League — but therein lies the problem.

UEFA, the body which runs European football, has rules that closely govern teams who are part of such multi-club ownership models. As well as monitoring player transfers between sister clubs, regulations also limit their ability to meet each other in any of its three continental competitions — the Champions League, Europa League and Europa Conference League.

With City likely to qualify for the Champions League once again next season — they are second in the table, two points behind leaders Liverpool with a game in hand, having qualified for the group stage in each of the previous 13 years — UEFA will have a decision to make.

So, if Girona continue their sparkling form, could City really be blocked from playing in the Champions League?

What is CFG?

City Football Group is the brainchild of Ferran Soriano — the former Barcelona executive who has been Manchester City’s chief executive since 2012. He also now holds the same position across the wider footballing group.

First incorporated in 2013, it comprises full or partial ownership of 13 clubs across five continents. Several of the teams involved have gradually transitioned from their pre-takeover kits towards City’s colours — though they share more than a sky-blue shirt.

Soriano has explained in his book, Goal: The Ball Doesn’t Go In By Chance, that Europe’s elite must act like multinational companies to compete at the highest level. Investing in multiple clubs around the world is the outcome of that philosophy, bringing benefits of shared resources, places to develop talent and keeping some transfer spending within the company, among others.

City first invested in Girona in August 2017, purchasing a 44.3 per cent stake after they won promotion to La Liga. An equal share was also held by a group ultimately chaired by Pere Guardiola — City manager Pep Guardiola’s brother — though in the years since, City’s share has now increased to 47 per cent, with Pere Guardiola selling around two-thirds of his stake to a Bolivian businessman named Marcelo Claure. Claure himself has links with CFG through Club Bolivar, a partner club he owns in his homeland.

Pep and Pere Guardiola (Photo: MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite a three-year spell in the second division following relegation in 2019, Girona have flourished since returning to the top flight for last season, catapulting themselves towards the top of the league under manager Michel Sanchez.

One of their key players is 19-year-old Brazilian winger Savio, also known as Savinho, who is on loan from fellow CFG club Troyes — he has managed five goals and seven assists in La Liga this season. Savio has never played for Troyes since signing for them from Atletico Mineiro in his homeland in summer 2022, having spent last season on loan to PSV Eindhoven in the Netherlands, and has been linked this week with a move to City from Troyes for next season.

There are numerous examples of similar moves, whether it is City loaning out young prospects to other clubs in the network, or buying talent in from them — Pedro Porro, who joined them from Girona in summer 2019 (he never made a senior City appearance, spending the next three seasons out on loan, and now plays for Tottenham), is one example. Sixteen players moved between City and Girona in the four years from 2016.

Among Girona’s key players this season have been right-back Yan Couto (on loan from Man City) and midfielder Yangel Herrera (who joined Man City in 2017, had loans at New York City and Girona, and joined Girona permanently last summer).

Brian Marwood, managing director of global football at CFG, told The Athletic in 2020 how the network is viewed: “We have clubs that we’re building to try to challenge at the top of their respective leagues, or to play in the Asian Champions League or the CONCACAF (version) or obviously the (UEFA) Champions League. There are other clubs that we feel can be a potential developmental platform for our young talent.”

So what are UEFA’s rules over multi-club models?

The links between City and Girona — from ownership, executive and footballing perspectives — clearly run deep.

UEFA’s rules, in theory, are intended to stop any chance of collusion between sister clubs who may meet in European competition.

Delving into UEFA’s rulebook, Article Five is the relevant passage — originally stemming from concerns over the control ENIC (Tottenham’s current owner) had over AEK Athens of Greece, Italy’s Vicenza and Slavia Prague from the Czech Republic, who between them made up almost half of the now-defunct UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final draw in the 1997-98 season.

According to the regulations, the same individual or legal entity is not allowed to have “control or influence” over more than one club playing in the same UEFA-organised competitions. Included in the definition of “control or influence” is the following — “the ability to exercise by any means a decisive influence in the decision-making of the club.”

CFG’s structure, with executives such as Soriano holding positions of authority over multiple teams, means the City-Girona relationship will be examined along these lines. It is about more than pure ownership — though that also comes into it — and addresses the roles of specific individuals, rather than simple shareholdings.

It is understood that UEFA’s Club Financial Control Body (CFCB), will be looking into the matter should both teams qualify for the Champions League, having ruled on several comparable relationships in recent years.

In an interview with UK newspaper The Daily Telegraph last month, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin said that a UEFA meeting over multi-club ownership rules had taken place earlier in January, with the body wanting to make restrictions more explicit — opening up the potential for a future change to the rulebook.

Does this mean City may not be allowed to play in the Champions League?

Well, if both Girona and City qualify that depends on the CFCB’s ruling.

If it decides City and Girona do indeed share “control or influence”, and the clubs are not able to find a workaround — more on this later — then one of them will not be able to play in the Champions League, should they both qualify.

As to which one misses out? The current UEFA rules state the team who finished higher in their domestic league will have priority when it comes to Champions League admittance — with the other dropping down to the Europa League.

Girona have enjoyed a fine season (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)

So if Girona are able to hang on to second, while City lose out in the three-horse race with Liverpool and Arsenal and end up third, or should Girona win La Liga and City finish second, it’s the Catalans who would qualify. If both teams finish in the same position in their respective domestic league, then the team playing in the one with a higher UEFA association coefficient — currently City, with England ranked third — get the nod.

As they stand, the rules also do not include any clause for one of the sides concerned winning the previous season’s Champions League — meaning that even if City retain their European title in June, it would not give them any precedence over league finishing position.

Would this mean anything for the Premier League and La Liga?

Well, if this transpired, there would be major repercussions on European qualification.

Under new qualification rules — the Champions League is set to expand from next season to 36 teams under the so-called Swiss model — two of the four extra spots will go to teams from the nations with the highest association coefficient (effectively a measure of domestic strength in European competition).

There is a chance that this could include England — although Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga currently occupy the top two spots, the Premier League is only just behind the latter, and could move ahead depending on knockout-phase results across the European competitions once those games get underway next week. In this eventuality, five English clubs could qualify for the Champions League.

Therefore, if City finish top four but in a worse league position than Girona, and if UEFA ruled they were not eligible for the Champions League, then the Premier League’s sixth-placed club could theoretically qualify instead.

Similarly, if it was decided Girona were not allowed to participate, then fifth in La Liga would qualify — Spain are currently fourth in the UEFA coefficients but are a sizeable distance behind England, so it’s unlikely they can secure a fifth spot.

Has this situation happened before?

Yes, or versions of it at least. One of Europe’s highest-profile multi-club ownership groups is the Red Bull network — their two largest clubs are Germany’s RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg of Austria, who played against each other in the 2018-19 Europa League group stage.

Similarly to City and Girona, they shared a common ownership, with individuals in positions of power across both clubs.

The previous season, both Red Bull sides had qualified for the Champions League (though Salzburg then went out in the qualifying rounds), sparking a UEFA investigation into the structures behind both sides. The verdict? Both had to make “several important governance and structural changes” — governing corporate matters, financing, personnel, and sponsorship arrangements. At the end of this reshuffling, UEFA was content that “no individual or legal entity” — which included the wider Red Bull company — had a decisive influence over more than one of the clubs. Though the exact details of the changes were never fully explained, according to UEFA officials, Article 5 was not in breach.

Until last summer, the Red Bull stable offered the only significant precedent — but after Aston Villa and Brighton & Hove Albion successfully qualified for Europe, their relationships with Portugal’s Vitoria Guimaraes, who were in the Conference League with Villa, and Union Saint-Gilloise (USG) of Belgium, potential Europa League opponents for Brighton, respectively came under scrutiny.

The Red Bull teams had to make changes to their structures (Photo: RONNY HARTMANN/AFP via Getty Images)

This time, the changes were more transparent. Villa’s holding company V Sports, owned by Nassef Sawiris and Wes Edens, reduced its stake in Vitoria, and Brighton owner Tony Bloom took similar steps with USG.

Other moves included restricting the ability to apply financing and board representation being changed — alongside footballing-related clauses, such as an embargo on player transfers between the clubs, and the separation of player or scouting databases.

Legally, these cases are not binding precedents — in practice, they were reached in consultation with UEFA — though they do offer a useful model.

So what will CFG’s approach be?

As of now, over three months before this situation might become a reality, the mood at City and Girona is relaxed.

Senior figures at both are confident the clubs should be able to compete in the Champions League next season if they qualify — though changes may have to be made. While CFG’s stake in Girona is only 47 per cent, the key issue is a matter of individual influence, rather than the ultimate ownership explicitly.

Red Bull’s example shows that structural changes are a minimum requirement — with the possibility that CFG may need to further reduce an element of its holding, or change aspects of its board representation and commercial strategy.

There is also a recognition that the ability to transfer or loan players between the clubs is likely to be affected — regardless of whether any deal meets a fair market value test. Their proposed move for Girona’s Troyes loanee Savio is an interesting example of City perhaps seeking to finalise business early.

Part of CFG’s plan is to foster a web of player development — and to ensure both clubs would be able to play in the Champions League next season, it may need to sacrifice one strand of that by separating player databases. Girona, counter-intuitively, will distance themselves from City with their own success.

Playing in the Champions League would have been an unlikely dream before this season for many players in the Girona squad and while winning the title is still an outside shot there are no worries in the dressing room about UEFA or anyone else stopping them joining Europe’s elite competition should they finish in La Liga’s top four.

City, Girona and UEFA were all approached for comment.

Anything else I should know?

City and long-running legal cases are no strangers to each other, following their lengthy legal battles with both UEFA and the Premier League over alleged breaches of financial rules. The latter is still ongoing. City deny any wrongdoing.

According to legal experts with knowledge of competition law, teams who just miss out on Champions League qualification — for example, the fifth- or sixth-place finishers in the Premier League, depending on UEFA’s coefficients — may have the ability to appeal to UEFA, arguing that Article 5 is not satisfied.

That would be at the discretion of individual clubs — and it is unprecedented to date across limited examples — but with Champions League qualification worth a minimum of some £30million, the prospect of this rumbling into litigation cannot be ruled out.

Additional reporting by Dermot Corrigan.

(Top image: Getty Images)

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