Jim Ratcliffe

UEFA Set to Change Vital Multi-Club Ownership Rules

Multi-club agreements are all the rage these days in football, with many wealthy ownership groups looking to build a network of teams under one umbrella. The perks are that a conveyor belt of talent can be created, with clubs within the agreement given first refusal on players showing promise slightly lower down the food chain. There’s also a commercial edge to these multi-club networks, with a parent club able to gain exposure to a whole new audience in different continents around the globe.

But the landscape is not all rosy – as Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who now owns a healthy stake in Manchester United and outright control of French club, Nice. They are set to both play in the Europa League in 2024/25 if Ratcliffe and his Ineos team can convince UEFA that he does not have ‘decisive influence’ over each – if he can’t, one or the other will be barred from competing. To make matters worse, a proposed transfer deal that would see one Nice defender make the switch to Old Trafford is also on the rails. However, it would appear that UEFA’s position on multi-club ownership is mellowing.

Restricted Influence

UEFA’s rules on the matter are clear: two or more clubs with the same ownership team cannot play in the same competition, due to concerns over integrity and influence. However, it’s also known that the governing body is thought to be weakening its stance on the matter, with multi-club ownership now such a common route for rich entrepreneurs and private equity firms to take. Currently, the rules state that ‘no individual or legal entity may have ‘control or decisive influence’ over more than one club’ that is contesting the same competition.

And yet, UEFA has since sent out a memorandum to clubs offering them a potential workaround, with the governing body willing to allow two or more clubs of the same network to play in the same competition if there is a ‘….transfer or assignment in a club to an independent third party, such as a blind trust.’ It’s a change that will allow Manchester City to play in the 2024/25 Champions League alongside Girona, the surprise package in Spanish football who qualified for the UCL in 2023/24. Both clubs are owned by the same Abu Dhabi based group of investors.

That amendment may yet also allow for Manchester United and Nice to play alongside each other in the Europa League, however Ineos and Ratcliffe will need to be able to prove that their ownership stake in one of those two teams has been divested to a third party. According to UEFA sources, the decision has been taken on a temporary, ‘exceptional basis’, and it’s likely that a more permanent solution will be written into their law in due course.

It’s a workaround that will be deemed controversial by many, with the ownership group still likely to be key in decision-making at all of their clubs even after divesting in one or more of them – this is merely an administrative exercise to comply with the rules. And the sense of UEFA’s decision will also be severely tested if Manchester City and Girona, or Manchester United and Nice, are drawn together in continental competition in 2024/25.

Cooking the Books

Stadium with UEFA sign

While the upholding of competitive integrity is one potential controversy of multi-club ownership, the transferring of a player from one of the clubs to another is quite a different riddle for UEFA to solve. It’s possible that a club in the network could sell a player to another member club for a reduced transfer fee – helping the accounts of the group, but also enabling them to ‘cook the books’ as far as Financial Fair Play (FFP) and Profit & Sustainability Rules (PSR).

UEFA are aware of their obligations and know that they cannot amend the rules in the same way that they have to allow multiple clubs to play in the same competition. That’s why they have banned Manchester United from signing Nice defender, Jean-Clair Todibo, for those very reasons. Ratcliffe revealed as much in the press: “They [UEFA] have said we [Nice] can sell him to another Premiership club, but we can’t sell to Manchester United. But that’s not fair on the player, and I don’t see what that achieves.”

The Ineos founder is either naïve or blind to the risks of allowing clubs within the same ownership stable to transfer players from another, and while UEFA have made some moves on relaxing competition laws, it would be foolhardy to say the least for them to take a similar stance on player transfers.

The New Way

At the time of writing, as many as 14 Premier League clubs were involved in a multi-club ownership agreement. UEFA’s temporary ruling on multi-club deals means that while an owner can have as much as 100% of shares in one of the clubs, they must then divest to a stake below 30% in each of the others. The ruling would only affect a small handful of Premier League clubs. Arsenal’s owner, Stan Kroenke, owns a majority stake in Colorado Rapids too, although it’s unlikely that there would be any crossover in player transfers there.

Aston Villa owners, Nassef Sawaris and Wes Edens, have already divested their stake in Portuguese club, Vitoria Guimaraes, below 30%, as Brighton owner, Tony Bloom, with his share in Belgian outfit, Union Saint-Gilloise. Chelsea’s owner Todd Boehly has a majority stake in Strasbourg, although that deal is unlikely to cause any related problems, although ambitious Crystal Palace owner John Textor would have a straight decision to make between the Eagles and French side, Lyon, should any issues arise in the future.

A complicated ownership structure at Liverpool and AC Milan could raise future issues there, while the City Football Group are expected to divest shares in Girona to allow them to compete alongside Manchester City in the Champions League.