Financial Fair Play in Football: The Rules & Punishments for Breaking Them

UEFA Financial Fair Play screenshot

They say that money can’t buy you happiness, but it can certainly buy you success in football – as anybody that witnessed Manchester City’s treble-winning campaign of 2022/23, following £1 billion spent in transfer fees by Pep Guardiola, can testify. So, if money buys success in the beautiful game, how do football’s authorities prevent the sport from becoming a free-for-all in which the richest thrive and the rest, well, don’t?

That was a hot potato that UEFA were forced to address, so in 2009 they came up with Financial Fair Play (FFP) – a series of guidelines designed to protect against ‘financial doping’ in football. But in an era of Middle Eastern states buying up football clubs and pumping cash reserves into them, can FFP ever truly work? And, does UEFA really want it to?

What Are the Financial Fair Play Rules?

UEFA logoWhen they undertook a study of 665 member clubs in 2009, UEFA learned that more than half of that number were losing money (i.e. their overall spending was higher than their revenue), while as many as 120 of them were in grave financial peril. The authority set about introducing a series of Financial Fair Play rules, designed to limit the spending of football clubs in a bid to enhance their sustainability.

The exact FFP rules have been tweaked over the years, and so their precise minutiae has changed since the initial formulation of the legislation in 2009. But as a general rule, clubs that compete in UEFA sanctioned competitions must abide by two key regulations:

  • Clubs can incur total losses of €60 million (revenue minus outgoings) over three calendar years
  • Spending on transfers, wages and agent fees must not exceed 70% of a club’s annual revenue

That all seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Well, in theory, it should be, but policing those two key pointers listed is a tough task given the number of workarounds that clubs have at their disposal. Need a few quid to pass FFP? Ask your owner, who is also your chief sponsor, to simply pay more in commercial fees. Worried about breaching FFP rules, but don’t want to stop buying players? Easy: simply spread the cost of their transfer fee over the entire duration of their contract.

What Are the Punishments for Breaking FFP Rules?

Fine next to gavel

Given that Financial Fair Play rules have been designed to a) protect the long-term financial viability of football and b) stop clubs from ‘cheating’, you would think that UEFA and other authorities would dish out hefty punishments to those that breach the requirements.

That is rarely the case, as we’ll discover in the next section of this article, although UEFA have detailed eight possible punitive measures they can take to punish offenders. The first is an official reprimand – the equivalent of a harassed parent warning an unruly child they’re at risk of being docked a week’s pocket money, while the second is a fine; the governing body’s favourite penalty (as if taking a few million off clubs already eight figures in debt is a punishment at all).

Other options include withholding revenue from UEFA competitions, banning clubs from registering certain players for UEFA tournaments and limiting squad sizes in the Champions League, Europa League etc. Points deductions, disqualification from a competition and even expulsion from a league or cup are also available as sanctions – these would really hurt offending clubs, and yet UEFA and other authorities rarely punish their teams in this way… it’s almost as if FFP rules are a token gesture.

The Premier League also has its own list of published punishments, which by and large mirror those of UEFA. That said, wouldn’t it be incredible if a football club was expelled from the Premier League for serial cheating? With 115 alleged breaches of FFP being investigated, would Manchester City’s financial doping fall into this category?

Has Any Club Been Punished for Breaking FFP Rules?

Man City logoWhen you consider that Premier League clubs paid a combined £2.9 billion in transfer fees during the 2022/23 season, it seems impossible that at least a handful of them haven’t breached FFP protocol in some way. But the number of clubs that have been punished for breaking Financial Fair Play rules is surprisingly small – and even then you wonder if the punishments really fit the crime for those that have been found guilty.

Serial offenders are Manchester City, the English club owned by the entire state of Abu Dhabi, who have plenty of dosh to throw around. Back in 2014, they were found guilty of not satisfying FFP requirements. So, were they thrown out of the Champions League? Docked Premier League points? No, they were fined €20 million (around £17 million). Bearing in mind their owner, Sheikh Mansour, has a net worth of £16.8 billion you’d have to question whether that’s a punishment at all – or simply a cost of business and the price of success.

The Cityzens have been up to their old tricks again, and heading into the 2023/24 season they are facing allegations of 115 separate FFP breaches over a nine-year period – this time the Premier League, rather than UEFA, will decide upon the punishment. But what will it be? An hour on the naughty step? Off to bed with no supper? If found guilty, surely a mammoth points deduction is the only deterrent to stop them from continually gaming the system.

City aren’t the only club having a go. PSG, another state-controlled entity, have been fined, had a cap imposed upon their player salary spending and even had the amount they can spend on transfers limited. Others, including Chelsea, Juventus, AC Milan and Monaco, have also broken FFP rules and been punished with fines – but will the threat of financial penalties put them off trying to stretch the rules again in the future? It’s high time that UEFA and the Premier League started handing out points deductions – the only way to really hurt a football club.