It’s another victory for the cynics. Another victory for Goliath. Another victory for modern football. The Tribunal Arbitral du Sport, or Court of Arbitration for Sport, or TAS or CAS, or typically corrupt organ of football—choose your own title for it—ruled this morning to overturn AC Milan’s ban on European competition, which means that Milan will represent Serie A in the Europa League this year rather than Fiorentina, despite the club’s blatant disregard for various UEFA financial rules.
As you may recall, Chinese “businessman” Li Yonghong bought Milan from previous owner/Bond villain Silvio Berlusconi last summer for about €830 million, which included both the club and the debt it had accrued. He immediately pumped nearly €200 million in player purchases into the team, hoping that a deep run in the Europa League and big sponsorships in Asia would keep him from running afoul of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations. To raise such a sum (possibly close to €1 billion), Li borrowed heavily, counting massive and ruthless hedge fund Elliott Management among his creditors. When Li eventually missed the deadline to repay €50 million he owed Elliott this summer, the fund took over the club.
Due to the obvious financial shortcomings that Milan accrued, UEFA handed them a one-year ban from European play in accordance with FFP guidelines. Milan, now under control of Elliott Management, appealed the decision to TAS. Led by the club’s managing director Marco Fassone, Milan began their hearing yesterday and continued it into today. Backed by Elliott’s ghouls, Fassone argued that, if Milan were to re-establish a sound financial structure, the club needed the prestige and payouts that European competition generated. And this morning, we discovered that TAS agreed.
The message that TAS is sending here is unmistakable: it doesn’t matter if you break the rules so long as you have a big name and some money behind you. For nearly any other club in the world, a financial disaster like the one Milan just experienced would mean selling off the big-name players at the club to raise funds, dropping down into the midtable for a few seasons to rebuild, and then bursting forth with a much stronger infrastructure. Instead, Milan are looking to buy more players and add more debt and their reward is greater publicity in a continental competition. The injustice of it would be staggering were it not exactly the sort of result that calcio, and football in general, specialize in.
The decision has already been reviled as “mortifying” and “credibility-removing” and “real filth,” but that doesn’t really get at the problem here. Even as Fiorentina has released an (unexpectedly graceful) statement agreeing to abide by the TAS ruling, anyone who pays attention to calcio has gotten the message loud and clear: there are two sets of rules at play. One is for the teams who follow FFP, who balance the books according to the laws of the league and the associations, who get busted down to Serie C2 and fight their way back to the top. The other is for teams who are run by hedge funds and oligarchs, and you can guess which set applies to Fiorentina.
I don’t know what the solution is to this nakedly corrupt behavior; as long as it’s profitable (and we all know that there are plenty of absurdly wealthy people getting more absurdly wealthy from this), nothing will change. AC Milan, Elliott Management, and TAS are not football teams and don’t care about football. Yes, they should be ashamed of themselves, but they’re not and they never will be. This is big business, and shame is the only thing that big businesses can’t afford.