It had been an electrical night of Champions League soccer at Madrid’s Santiago Bernabéu stadium, with Real Madrid coming from behind to eliminate Paris St.-Germain. The sport in March had been billed as a showdown of soccer’s recent money against European aristocracy, and Real Madrid, representing the old guard, had triumphed. But only just.
Now that it was over, though, the Paris St.-Germain president, Nasser al-Khelaifi, was furious. And almost as soon because the referee blew his whistle, al-Khelaifi was moving.
He and the P.S.G. sporting director, Leonardo, headed straight for the changing rooms utilized by the referee Danny Makkelie and the match officials. It is just not unusual for members of the losing side to precise their frustration over a defeat, or to hunt answers. But Makkelie, a highly experienced official from the Netherlands, felt what happened within the tunnel area in Madrid went beyond all acceptable bounds.
After the match, Makkelie wrote in a report reviewed by The Latest York Times, al-Khelaifi and Leonardo “showed aggressive behavior and tried to enter the dressing room of the referee.” Even after Makkelie asked them to go away, he wrote, al-Khelaifi and Leonardo “blocked the door.” The president, he wrote, then “deliberately hit the flag of one among the assistants, breaking it.”
The events created a crisis for European soccer’s governing body, UEFA. Al-Khelaifi is one of the powerful men within the European game, an executive whose multiple roles — including a spot on UEFA’s top board and a post as chairman of a media company that funnels lots of of hundreds of thousands of dollars into European soccer through broadcast deals — have long aroused conflict-of-interest concerns.
What happened next has only increased those worries amongst administrators and rivals. Inside 24 hours of the incident, UEFA announced that it had opened a disciplinary investigation. After which it went silent.
Weeks passed. Then months. Other incidents that had taken place at UEFA matches held after the sport between Real Madrid and P.S.G. were investigated and adjudicated. But UEFA’s investigation into al-Khelaifi — who along with his role at P.S.G., one among Europe’s richest clubs, can also be the chairman of beIN Media Group, the Qatar-based company that’s one among UEFA’s biggest partners — dragged on.
Only in June, after the European soccer season had finished, after much of the eye on the incident had faded, did UEFA quietly publish a brief paragraph. It appeared on Page 5 of a six-page document listing outcomes of recent disciplinary cases: UEFA said it will ban Leonardo — who had since left P.S.G. — for one game for violating “the fundamental rules of decent conduct.”
Curiously, there was no mention of al-Khelaifi, who in response to the referee’s report had engaged in behavior that was worse. UEFA declined to supply details of its investigation, or why al-Khelaifi had avoided punishment. It said the delay may very well be explained, too: It had simply prioritized investigations involving teams still competing in its competitions.
P.S.G. declined to comment.
Veterans of disciplinary matters contained in the organization, though, weren’t surprised within the consequence. Alex Phillips, a UEFA executive for nearly 20 years, most recently served as its head of governance and compliance until leaving the organization in 2019. He told The Times that the timing of the resolution alone felt intentional. “They might have waited to search out a quiet time to bury it and hope people would have forgotten and it will blow over,” Phillips said.
He suggested that UEFA’s disciplinary mechanism has been undermined in recent times. “The so-called independent judicial bodies are in point of fact removed from independent, as an alternative now getting used as an influence tool to make sure specific outcomes,” Phillips said. “We might tell the general public that they’re independent decisions after they really should not.”
The al-Khelaifi case comes at a very sensitive time for UEFA. The European Court of Justice will rule next yr after a bunch of clubs questioned UEFA’s role as a regulator and competition organizer. If it loses, its hegemony over how European soccer’s multibillion-dollar business might be organized, and by whom, may come under severe threat.
The case of the tunnel fracas in Madrid can also be not the primary time P.S.G. has achieved a good consequence after being investigated by UEFA. In 2018, the club faced the potential of being excluded from a minimum of a season of Champions League soccer after being found to have breached UEFA’s financial control regulations. But P.S.G. was spared a humiliating — and expensive — punishment after UEFA’s administration sided with the team against its own investigators.
Relations between al-Khelaifi and UEFA have only strengthened since then.
He emerged as UEFA’s chief partner in early 2021, when the organization successfully fought off a bid by a bunch of European soccer’s biggest teams to create a breakaway Super League.
But had the Super League succeeded, it will have at a stroke sabotaged the Champions League — UEFA’s chief financial engine and widely considered to be the highest club event in global sports.
As a substitute of signing up, though, al-Khelaifi said P.S.G. sided with UEFA, lobbying publicly and privately to assist crush the revolt. That effort has been rewarded: Al-Khelaifi was soon elevated to chairman of the influential European Club Association, an umbrella group for greater than 200 top clubs that’s UEFA’s three way partnership partner for selling rights to the Champions League and two other club competitions — and of which beIN Sports is one among the most important customers.
“There’s a transparent conflict of interest,” said Miguel Maduro, the previous head of governance at global soccer’s governing body, FIFA. “That he’s president of P.S.G. may not be a conflict, because clubs have to be represented at UEFA. But the very fact UEFA has serious economic interests with him and vice versa gives him undue influence. No one which has economic interests when it comes to coping with UEFA must be on its board.”
Phillips, the previous UEFA executive, said he had once tried to stop al-Khelaifi’s elevation to UEFA’s executive committee but found little support amongst his colleagues.
“You’ve got a conflict-of-interest article within the statutes,” Phillips said he told staff members. “You place it in, why don’t you apply it?”
UEFA’s president, Aleksander Ceferin, has long brushed aside such concerns, and he even insisted that al-Khelaifi, a Qatari who’s a detailed confidante and occasional tennis partner of the Gulf country’s ruler, remain on its board as he fought a corruption case in Switzerland. (Al-Khelaifi was cleared within the case earlier this yr.) This week, as European soccer’s top power brokers meet in Istanbul across the draw for this season’s Champions League, Ceferin and al-Khelaifi, in his role as E.C.A. head, are prone to hold bilateral talks on the long run of the sport.
That influence has not gone unnoticed by rivals already wary of P.S.G.’s deep pockets. One other executive with a team within the Champions League this season, Joan Laporta of Barcelona, lamented in an interview with The Latest York Times earlier this summer that state-backed clubs like P.S.G. can offer double the quantity teams like his can for players within the billion-dollar transfer market.
Maduro, meanwhile, said that UEFA’s actions have “created suspicions” that P.S.G. operates under a distinct algorithm. He described the consequence of the 2018 financial fair play case as “incredible.”
“You could have the political leadership of UEFA siding with a club against its own independent body, undermining the enforcement of the foundations,” he said. A lot of the members of the commissions that investigated and ruled on P.S.G. in its financial compliance case have either quit or been replaced.
UEFA has since appointed Sunil Gulati, the previous U.S. Soccer president, to guide its financial investigatory body. Gulati and Ceferin developed a friendship when each served on FIFA’s leadership council.
It’s Gulati who shall be the one tasked with implementing the brand new financial control regulations that UEFA announced earlier this yr. But those rules are more flexible than the previous regulations, and so they have been renamed to spotlight how UEFA is not any longer reliant on them to advertise a level playing field in its competitions. What had been often known as the Financial Fair Play system now shall be often known as “financial stability” regulations.
“Competitiveness can’t be addressed just by financial regulations,” Andrea Traverso, the UEFA official answerable for establishing the foundations, told reporters in April.
The foundations appear to have arrived at an opportune time for P.S.G., which has carried on spending lavishly at the same time as the remainder of the soccer industry was being buffeted by the financial impact of the pandemic. On this summer’s transfer window alone, the club has committed about 200 million euros on players, including a record recent contract to retain the star striker Kylian Mbappé.
At the identical time, news media reports this week said the team was amongst two dozen which can be prone to be fined, or conform to financial settlements with UEFA, for overspending under the brand new financial rules. Such a punishment is unlikely to harm a team with the resources of P.S.G. or Manchester City, one other club bankrolled by Gulf billions that has repeatedly challenged — and avoided — major sanctions from UEFA.
“Evidently there may very well be some privilege for the clubs,” Laporta said this summer. “The state clubs which can be near UEFA.”