Facing abuse and anger over its decision to ban Manchester City, the English soccer champion, from its competitions, European soccer’s governing body this week took the unusual step of ordering its staff members not to wear branded clothing when they travel to matches involving the team, or even to games played in Manchester.
The warnings from the body, UEFA, included the Europa League match on Thursday between Manchester United and Club Brugge of Belgium.
Manchester City fans have fumed for years about what they consider the mistreatment of their club by UEFA. But that anger has increased since Feb. 14, when UEFA issued Manchester City a two-season ban from the Champions League, starting next season, and a fine of 30 million euros ($27 million) after an investigation into accusations that City had violated UEFA’s cost-control regulations.
The club’s response throughout the process has been a full-throated denial, and accusations that UEFA’s process has been biased and prejudicial. It filed its official appeal of the punishment on Wednesday at the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.
But fan vitriol — taking aim not only at UEFA and its executives, but also at news media outlets that have reporters on the case and individual journalists — has continued to appear on social media and fan message boards and even inside City’s stadium, where last week fans displayed signs that called UEFA a “mafia” and a “cartel.”
Manchester City, which has never won the Champions League, moved a step closer to the quarterfinals of this year’s competition on Wednesday with a dramatic 2-1 victory at Real Madrid. The victory came hours after news that City had filed its appeal at CAS. But the UEFA officials traveling to the game at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium in Madrid wore plainclothes, said two people familiar with the contents of an internal memo that was sent to staff members.
UEFA will take the same precautions when the two teams meet for the deciding game in Manchester on March 17.
A spokesman for UEFA declined to comment on the memo, saying the organization does not discuss the safety guidance it gives to its employees.
Some UEFA officials are accustomed to keeping a low profile, especially those who work what the organization considers high-risk matches. But the warnings about fans of City, who do not have a reputation for crowd violence, were unusual.
Manchester City fans’ antipathy toward UEFA predates the European ban. Spectators have long jeered the Champions League anthem when it is played before matches in the competition, amid a festering sense that the team — which was lifted out of decades of mediocrity by the riches of its Gulf ownership group — is treated unfairly because it is not a part of soccer’s established elite.
Shortly after Manchester City’s ban was announced, the club issued a statement in which it decried a “prejudicial process” that was “initiated by UEFA, prosecuted by UEFA and judged by UEFA.”
“Ultimately,” the team’s chief executive, Ferran Soriano, said in an interview with the club’s website, “this seems to be less about justice and more about politics.”
Still, the scale and the tone of fan frustration have led UEFA to take no chances. And it is not the only group facing a backlash.
At last year’s F.A. Cup final, which City won to complete a sweep of English titles in one season, a fan stormed into the press seating area at Wembley Stadium and profanely berated members of the news media over what he called bias toward City’s title rival Liverpool.
Paul McCarthy, an official with the Football Writers’ Association, an organization that represents soccer journalists, told The New York Times that he had been in communication with Manchester City about the hostile messages, which have included not only personal abuse but also threats of violence and the publication of personal information. One popular unofficial fan forum has in recent days taken down some of the offending material.
“The forum in question, which is independent of Manchester City F.C., is responsibly managed and has been since its inception,” a City representative said. “Manchester City F.C. has always been impressed with its ability to both present a platform for open debate whilst robustly policing antisocial or offensive posts. The small number of messages which appear to have breached the self-imposed strict rules of the forum were swiftly removed by the moderators themselves prior to any concern being raised by the club, the NYT or indeed any third party.”