Team Ownership Rules Complicate a Soccer Star’s Next Move

To soccer’s new generation of superrich investors — risk-friendly billionaires, American hedge funds, wealthy gulf states — the appeal of a new model for team ownership lay in its simple strategy.

By sweeping up not just a single team but multiple squads and hundreds of players into expansive multiclub networks, these rich new owners believed they could leverage efficiency, best practices and volume into success on the field.

Red Bull, the energy drink maker, pioneered the model. Manchester City, the English champion financed by the wealth of the United Arab Emirates, supersized it through its City Football Group. Jim Ratcliffe, the chairman of the chemicals giant INEOS, brought it to Manchester United when he acquired a major stake in the club last year.

But one of the biggest attractions of multiclub ownership has now run up against a significant challenge: European soccer’s governing body is changing the rules.

The problem, European soccer leaders said, is that matches between teams controlled by the same ownership group could compromise the fairness of continental competitions, and open the door to self-dealing in soccer’s $7-billion-a-year player trading market.

Aleksander Ceferin, European soccer’s top administrator, has tried to straddle the divide. In a podcast interview last year, he suggested that the multiclub model represented a danger to the sport, even as he courted investors by saying that the rules on such ownership might be eased under the Champions League’s new format.

The current flashpoint involves one of the most celebrated stories of the recently completed European soccer season: the Spanish club Girona and its talented 20-year-old Brazilian forward named Sávio.

Girona finished third in the Spanish league last season, its fourth year in the country’s top division. That performance earned the team a place next season in the Champions League, Europe’s richest club competition, and drew the eye of some of the continent’s biggest clubs to Girona’s top talents.

When it came to signing Sávio, Manchester City had an advantage. Its owner, the brother of the ruler of the U.A.E., is also the holder of the single largest ownership stake in Girona. So the next stop for Girona’s breakout star did not seem to be in doubt. The news was all but confirmed in February, when the social media influencer Fabrizio Romano, who specializes in player trading news, declared the deal done.

“Manchester City have signed all documents to sign Sávio from July 1,” he declared in a message to his 20 million-plus followers on X that began with a red-siren emoji.

The rights to Sávio, though, didn’t actually belong to Girona. The player had been on loan from the French club Troyes, which is also a member of the City Football Group.

Those types of multiple holdings have become commonplace in world soccer in the past half decade: Data from UEFA, European soccer’s governing body, has identified more than 180 teams worldwide, employing more than 6,500 players, that are now part of multiclub networks.

That has created a problem for UEFA. In the past, it had focused mostly on how team ownership affected its competitions, ruling that a single owner could not control multiple teams in the same event.

But with multiclub control on the rise and critics complaining about the integrity of Europe’s biggest tournaments — not to mention fears that storied, proud clubs are being reduced to mere feeder teams — UEFA has introduced temporary rule changes.

Under the revised regulations, if an owner reduces their holdings in one of their clubs to less than 30 percent, both teams would be permitted to play in UEFA’s tournaments, provided that the teams also ensure they are separately run, without shared board members and other direct commercial or sporting ties.

These rules will be granted for only one season, allowing more time for owners to divest a stake in a competing club below the threshold required by UEFA.

Such an accommodation was made last season for the American owners of A.C. Milan and the French team Toulouse, prompting reports in November that Red Bird, the company that controls both teams, was looking for a buyer for Toulouse.

The revised rules on player movement, though, will be strict. Clubs involved in multiclub ownership arrangements would be barred from loaning or trading any players between their teams if they were participating in the same competition. (This rule, too, was in place for Milan and several other teams last season.)

That would mean Sávio’s much-heralded arrival at Manchester City, the Premier League champion, would have to be put on hold if both City and Girona were to play in the Champions League next season. He would still be clear to take part, but it would be unlikely that he could do so in a sky blue City uniform.

(The same issue could affect a prospective move by Jean-Clair Todibo, a defender at the French club Nice — owned by Mr. Ratcliffe — to Manchester United. United and Nice have both qualified for a different UEFA competition, the Europa League, next season. “We understand the UEFA regulations,” Mr. Ratcliffe’s company, INEOS, said in a statement, adding, “Our objective is for both clubs to play in the Europa League. We now await UEFA’s decision.”)

City Football Group said it had been in contact with officials at UEFA for months in order to find a way to clear both Manchester City and Girona to play in the Champions League. All clubs had a deadline of this past Monday to file final documentation.

UEFA declined to comment on the proposed deal, but a final decision on team eligibility is expected to be announced next month.

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