The organization, after all, has emphasized its continuing commitment to its regulations. City has not proved F.F.P. is illegal under European Union law (and was not, in the end, trying to). UEFA has simply not brought a strong enough, or quick enough, case to police its rules in this instance.
The problem is that it is not just this instance. This is the third time UEFA has tried to punish one of the continent’s elite — for all its attempts to characterize itself as some sort of insurgent underdog, that is precisely the group to which Manchester City belongs — and it is the third time it has failed to bring any of them to heel. It has been undone, again, by procedural technicalities.
There has been no spectacular, conclusive breach in F.F.P.; just a series of cracks appearing, fatally undermining the foundation. For the richest and most powerful clubs, the rules are starting to look an awful lot like guidelines, and the impression is that UEFA cannot universally enforce them, anyway. There is, now, precious little incentive for anyone to adhere to them.
That such a blow should be delivered now is significant. UEFA has already agreed to suspend, temporarily, some of its cost-control measures, to allow clubs to ride out the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
Even before the virus hit, though, UEFA was considering how its financial rules might be altered, updated, possibly simplified, to make them easier to understand and — possibly — more appealing to follow. City’s acquittal lends weight to the argument that the current approach is not up to the task, but it also highlights how difficult it will be to rewrite the rules.
There is a school of thought that perhaps it is not worth the time and effort. The belief that F.F.P. is not doing what it was supposed to do has become a truism: An idea introduced almost a decade ago to improve soccer’s financial health and to decrease its reliance on debt has become, instead, a tool to entrench the status quo, to lock ambitious clubs out of the golden circle.
Criticism, though, is easier than construction. If Financial Fair Play is jettisoned, if Manchester City’s vindication proves to be its death knell, one question lingers: What comes next?