Manchester City’s plan for global domination

Football has already been transformed by big money – but the capitalists behind Man City are trying to build a global corporation that will change the game for ever | GILES TREMLETT in The Guardian 

(December 15) – On 19 December 2009, Pep Guardiola stood and wept in the middle of Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. The 38-year-old Barcelona manager clasped a hand across his face as his body gave way to huge, shoulder-heaving sobs. Zlatan Ibrahimović, the club’s towering Swedish striker, wrapped a tattooed arm around Guardiola’s neck and then gave him a vigorous push in order to jolt him out of it. But Guardiola could not stop. It was a strange place for the world’s most celebrated football coach to break down: Barcelona had just won a game that few people watched on television to secure one of football’s most obscure titles, the Fifa Club World Cup. But the victory secured an unbreakable record: Barcelona had won all six titles available to any club in a single year. That is why Pep was sobbing.

Back at home in Barcelona, it was a bittersweet moment for Ferran Soriano. A hairdresser’s son from the city’s working-class district of Poblenou, Soriano had become one of FC Barcelona’s top executives – and had helped build what could now claim to be the greatest football team the world had ever seen. “I was happy, but it was also painful not to be there when the team reached its pinnacle,” he told me. Instead, he picked up the phone and called Guardiola.

Soriano had overseen Barcelona’s finances for five years until 2008, and the club’s record owed much to the ideas he had developed after running a US-style political campaign to bring a group of swashbuckling, sharp-suited young men to power at elections for a new board of directors in 2003. He had even written a book, La Pelota no entra por azar (“The ball doesn’t go in by chance”), in which he argued that Barcelona’s success – and, by inference, that record – was the result of good, creative business management. Vicious political infighting had driven him to resign from the club the previous year. But even before that, he had seen one of his more ambitious ideas – to set up franchise clubs in other countries – thwarted at Barcelona. This was a step too far for a club owned by 143,000 voting fans, firmly rooted in their city and Catalonia.

But Soriano’s big idea has now been brought to life by two men who were watching very closely on the night Guardiola wept in Abu Dhabi: one is a member of the United Arab Emirates’ ruling family, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and the other is Khaldoon al-Mubarak, a youthful executive and adviser to the royal family. With their backing, Soriano is now upending football’s established order by building its first true multinational corporation – a Coca-Cola of soccer.

That corporation is City Football Group (CFG). It already owns, or co-owns, six clubs on four continents, and the contracts of 240 male professional players and two dozen women. Hundreds more carefully picked teenagers and younger children who aspire to greatness play in CFG’s lower teams. The longterm ambition is huge. The company will trawl the world for players – shaping and polishing them in state-of-the-art academies and training facilities across several continents, selling them on or sending the best to the clubs it will own (and improve) in a dozen or so countries. Supplied and shielded by the vessels around it, the flagship of this new football flotilla – Manchester City FC – will continue its already startling rise to become the world’s greatest club.

That is the Soriano idea – or at least, a simplified version of a complex plan. The corporation is only four years old, but it is rapidly becoming one of the most powerful forces in the world’s favourite sport – watched with awe, envy and fear by those who wonder if it could become football’s own Google or Facebook.

In a game where top players cost £200m, televised matches attract audiences of hundreds of millions and club owners are among the wealthiest potentates on the planet, no expense is spared in seeking any competitive edge. Once upon a time, money alone was enough to make the difference (if it was spent wisely), but that is no longer the case, in part because there is so much of it sloshing around the game.

When Manchester City won the Premier League in 2012, Sheikh Mansour was widely accused of “buying the title for £1bn” – the amount of money he had poured into City since purchasing the club four years earlier. It was City’s first league title in 44 years, and grown men cried when Sergio Agüero’s goal in the penultimate minute of the season’s final game secured the title. Mansour watched it on television: he had only ever been to one match at City’s Etihad stadium, and did not enjoy the fuss his visit caused. In the hours that followed, his phone hummed, filling up with 2,500 messages.

Man City CEO Ferran Soriano

Man City CEO Ferran Soriano | Chris Brunskill Ltd/Getty Images

But this was also the end of an era. European football’s regulator, Uefa, had brought in new rules designed to stop clubs spending much more than they earned. Critics dismissed Mansour as a spoiled hobbyist, and even today some wonder to what extent his “private” ownership might become an instrument of Abu Dhabi’s soft power. But his few public statements made it clear that he had bought City – and ploughed money into it – as a genuine, long-term investment because “in cold business terms, Premiership football is one of the best entertainment products in the world”.

The ambition, then, was double – he intended to win at both football and business. But with the Uefa spending brake, that was about to become much tougher. He needed something new. Could City win without losing money?

In fact, when Soriano’s gang of smart young businessmen took over Barcelona in 2003, it was a loss-making club. As finance chief, Soriano helped deliver a spiralling “virtuous circle” of high investment, trophies and then even higher revenues. Forceful and analytical, he had built and sold a global consultancy business by the age of 33; at Barcelona, where he was nicknamed both “the Panzer” and “the Computer”, he made a strong-willed but sensible counterpoint to the club’s mercurial president, Joan Laporta. But Soriano also saw Barcelona as something far bigger than a city club, while realising that the global football business itself was poised to enter a new era. In 2006, at a talk Soriano delivered at Birkbeck College in London, he presented 28 slides that set out his early vision. Thanks to the phenomenal growth in their worldwide fan bases, he noted, big clubs were being transformed from promoters and organisers “of local events, like a circus” into “global entertainment companies like Walt Disney”. If big clubs seized the opportunity to “capture the growth and become global franchises”, they would soon stand apart from their rivals, creating a new, world-conquering elite.

“He thought, and thinks, in a different way to most other people in football,” says Simon Chadwick, now a professor at Salford University, who had invited Soriano to give the talk at Birkbeck. At the time, Soriano himself was disappointed to find English football so in thrall to a model in which managers such as Arsène Wenger and Alex Ferguson appeared to run their own clubs, while “the level of conceptualisation of the business model was zero”. Even the language was telling. “They called the coach ‘manager’, as if he managed everything,” Soriano recalled.

With his abrupt departure from Barcelona in 2008, Soriano’s dream of turning that club into a global franchise, with a first satellite team in the US, was definitively dashed. Instead, Soriano threw himself into running an airline, Spanair. But five years after his presentation in London, as Mansour sought a fresh competitive edge, both on and off the field, Soriano found himself, in October 2011, sitting down for a 7am meeting in a Mayfair hotel with the globetrotting New York lawyer Marty Edelman – who was tempting him back into football.

Edelman had been drafted on to City’s board by Mansour, working alongside his appointed chairman, the US-educated Khaldoon al-Mubarak, from the very beginning. Edelman, a real estate expert, was already a trusted adviser in Abu Dhabi, and the choice of an American was an early sign of the club’s new cosmopolitanism. Soriano initially brushed off City’s advances. He was used to associating Manchester with its glittering rival United, and he still distrusted what he called “the stereotype of the rich owner”. (In his book, he had even described City as a club that provoked “savage inflation” through “irrational investment”.) But the two sides were slowly discovering shared values. Chief among them was ambition – and with that came a willingness to challenge the status quo.

Even then, it was an off-and-on affair. Meetings followed in Paris and Abu Dhabi, before, in April 2012, Soriano was sneaked through Manchester airport (where the club says it “can get people in without anyone knowing they have arrived”) and taken to a room at the Lowry Hotel booked in someone else’s name. A former rugby second-row forward, Soriano is, at 6ft 3in, difficult to hide. By now it was a mutual seduction, with City wanting to persuade him that, with Mansour’s long-term commitment, the club could be as great as Barcelona. Soriano, in turn, pitched a mould-breaking plan that required deep pockets, imagination and a steady nerve. Both sides agreed that City should aspire to being the world’s top club – a position long held by either Real Madrid, Barcelona or Manchester United. “And I mean number one – not number two or three,” Soriano told me.

The idea of becoming the world’s biggest club was not just vanity or business machismo. Soriano had spotted long before that a tiny group of elite clubs would capture the new global market, but he also wanted to build something “far bigger”. Football clubs, he pointed out, were massive brands but absurdly small businesses: a team with a global following of 500 million fans might have an income of only €500m. “That’s one euro per fan,” he says, “which is utterly ridiculous.” In business terms, this was “a combination of a lot of love and, literally, no love” – because fans in, say, Indonesia spent nothing on their club. “So what can we do? The answer was pretty simple, maybe too simple, but very bold. You have to be global but local. You have to go to Indonesia and open a shop.” He outlined his idea for a corporation that would have both a global brand – in Manchester City – and lots of local brands, developing talent through a network of clubs that would also provide a pipeline of players for City. He knew this might sound far-fetched. “If I had pitched this idea to Real Madrid, the answer would be ‘you’re crazy’ – and that is actually what had happened in Barcelona,” he told me.

But City was already going through a revolution, and was ready for more. For Edelman, the plan put flesh on the skeleton built with Mansour’s millions. “Any great idea needs to have a host, right? And we were a great host,” Edelman told me at his Park Avenue offices. “You couldn’t take Ferran’s idea and just put it on a blank sheet.” Soriano’s idea (which he now terms his “artistic challenge”) was a way of taking Mansour’s original vision – summed up in his early pledge to build “a structure for the future, not just a team of all-stars” – and putting it “on steroids”, in Edelman’s words.

Soriano started work as CEO of Manchester City on Saturday 1 September 2012. Two days later, he arrived in New York to create a new football club. This meant paying $100m (£74m) for a spot in Major League Soccer (MLS), the professional league for the US and Canada, and building a team from nothing. Seeking a local partner, Edelman eventually took Soriano to see Hank and Hal Steinbrenner, the owners of the New York Yankees. The brothers had inherited their baseball team, but Hank is a soccer fan who played at college and coached his local high-school team. It was one of the quickest deals Edelman had ever seen struck, taking “about 15 seconds” to agree it. “It just worked,” he told me. The Yankees took 20% of the new team and offered their stadium as a temporary home. (It still is, though it takes 72 hours to transform it from a baseball field into a soccer pitch.) The team, baptised New York City Football Club, began playing in 2015. Forbes now values it at $275m (£205m). To fans it is “NYCFC”, or simply “New York City” – a marketer’s dream. “Our brand is perfect, because it is ‘City’ and we know we can add that word to any city,” observed Soriano, who began his working life marketing detergents.

When I first visited the Etihad campus in March, the wall behind the reception desk bore the shields of City, NYCFC and two other clubs: Melbourne City, and Yokohama F Marinos, a Japanese club in which CFG owns a minority stake. Melbourne Heart, as the Australian club was originally known, had only been founded in 2009. It won its first major trophy last season, just two years after City bought it and changed its name, and changed its colours to sky blue. “It’s like being a start-up tech firm, and Apple buying you,” Scott Munn, the club’s founding CEO, told me. East Manchester, in this analogy, will become the Silicon Valley of soccer. A modest cluster of other football businesses is even forming in the area – making the Californian analogy even more apt.

By the time I returned two months later, City had bought yet another club, this time in Uruguay – Atlético Torque, a second-division side that was founded in 2007 and became professional only in 2012. At the company’s annual staff meeting in May, a representative from the new outpost began his presentation with a map of South America and a large arrow pointing to Uruguay. “Nobody knows what is Torque. Nobody knows where is Torque,” he admitted, only half-jokingly. (It is in Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo.) “In this room we have as many people as go to a Torque match.” The ambition, however, was for the club to rise to the first division, finish in the top four and qualify for continent-wide competitions – and this in a country that produces world-class players such as Barcelona’s Luis Suárez or Paris Saint-Germain’s Edinson Cavani. Rather more mysteriously, the club also aimed to “sign and register players from all across South America”. The latter was the result of a cold statistical analysis, which had revealed that Uruguay was the biggest per-capita exporter of professional footballers – an astounding £25m-a-year business. And this was despite the fact that many small clubs often sold talented players cheaply when they were still teenagers. “It’s astonishing,” Soriano said. “We are big, and will hold on to them longer” – making them even more valuable.

The next time I saw Soriano – at his holiday apartment in the small Catalan beach resort of Tamariu – it was July, and he had closed yet another deal just a day earlier. For €3.5m (£3.1m), City had purchased 44% of Girona, a club in Spain’s top division. This was a far bigger fish. As he sat on a balcony overlooking the bay in shorts and a T-shirt – pulling data on fan numbers and television rights out of a battered laptop – Soriano looked happy (and not just because, in Tamariu, he can make work calls from his balcony and then pop down to join his two “Mancunian” infant daughters on the beach).

“When we agreed the price last year, it was in the second division. Now it’s in the first,” he said. On 29 October this year, with help from players loaned by Manchester City, the newly promoted team convincingly beat Real Madrid in their first meeting. The injection of CFG cash and know-how at Torque has had an even more dramatic effect. Last month it finished top of Uruguay’s second division, meaning it has already been promoted – just six months after it was bought.

Soriano is convinced that football will eventually become the biggest sport in almost every country in the world, “including the United States and India,” he says. So how far will CFG go? “We’re open. In Africa we have a relationship with an academy in Ghana. And we’ve been looking at opportunities in South Africa,” he said. CFG already has a close relationship with Atlético Venezuela in Caracas; Soriano also mentioned Malaysia and Vietnam. The limit, he suggested, was two or three clubs per continent. But the next major purchase may well be in China, where the group is “actively looking” to buy a club.

In October 2015, China’s football-loving president, Xi Jinping, visited City’s Etihad stadium; two months later, Chinese investors bought 13% of CFG for $400m (£265m), valuing the whole at $3bn. This was probably well over 30% more than Mansour had pumped into it (no exact figures are available). Soriano has been watching the dramatic, chaotic evolution of Chinese soccer – a pet project for Xi – ever since he arrived in Manchester. At first, Soriano was put off by rumours of chaos and corruption, and then by a price bubble. “The market is now more rational and the league is more structured,” he says.

Xi wants China to create 50,000 special “soccer schools” within 10 years – partly to get deskbound schoolchildren fit – and to make ready 140,000 pitches. Soriano sees an opportunity to teach millions of children soccer, which “might be bigger than the business of Manchester City”. It is a reminder that CFG – which recently put $16m into a joint venture to own and operate five-a-side urban pitches in the US – is interested in the entire sector, not just clubs.

Chinese president Xi Jinping, Man City striker Sergio Aguero and then prime minister David Cameron at MCFC’s Etihad stadium in Manchester in 2015.

Chinese president Xi Jinping, Man City striker Sergio Aguero and then prime minister David Cameron at MCFC’s Etihad stadium in Manchester in 2015 | Sergio Aguero/AP

CFG is not the only owner of multiple clubs – and some other teams are experimenting with modest forms of integration – but the others are largely just investment portfolios. CFG is the only owner that has consciously established a single corporate culture around the world, which in some cases extends to wearing the same sky-blue shirts. Fernando Pons, a sports business partner at Deloitte in Spain, sees this as a prime example of what consultants have dubbed “glocalisation” – a concept that implies taking a global product, but adapting to local markets. “A Girona or New York City fan will almost certainly also become a City fan,” he said. It also means that the advertising for Nissan, SAP and Wix that is seen at the Etihad stadium in Manchester will be replicated in Melbourne or New York – and that players from the US or Australia will be able to travel off-season to the world’s most advanced training centre, built on 34 hectares of land beside the Etihad and equipped with sophisticated extras such as hyperbaric and hypoxic chambers that can simulate high altitude or boost blood oxygen levels.

What seems to excite Soriano most, however, is the vast pool of players and the range of clubs they can play in. CFG almost certainly already owns the contracts of more professional soccer players than anyone else in the world, and that number is only set to go higher. So while “entertainment” and running clubs is the group’s first business, he explained, “business number two is player development”. The inspiration is Barcelona’s famous and much-copied Masia youth academy, which, for about €2m each, produced legendary players such as Lionel Messi, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi, Carles Puyol and Guardiola. At today’s prices, the same group would cost closer to €1bn. “We are globalising the Barça model,” Soriano said.

The logic behind this was made even more clear – in the same week we met in July – by the widespread amazement over the £198m fee that the Qatari owners of Paris Saint-Germain had agreed to pay Barcelona for the Brazilian star Neymar. Transfer records are smashed almost yearly, and Soriano now sees this inflation as an inevitable part of the game, now driven not by wealthy owners but demanding fans.

“Why is that? It’s very simple: the industry is growing,” he explained. “Ultimately, it goes back to the clients – these are the fans, who want to watch good football and are ready to pay. So clubs have more money to spend, but the number of highly skilled or top players generated each year does not change.”

“This is a typical ‘make-or-buy’ challenge. You can’t buy in the market, so you have to make,” Soriano said. “This means spending a lot of money – on academies, coaches, but also in transfers for young players. It’s like venture capital in that if you invest 10 million each in 10 players, you just need one to get to the top who is going to be worth 100 million.”

For Manchester City, the expanding web of CFG clubs solves a particularly English problem, which occurs when promising footballers hit 17 or 18. Soriano calls this “the development gap”, and it may explain why England’s national team performs so badly. “If the player is top quality, he needs to play competitive football to develop. It’s not only for the technical aspect of the game, but also for the pressure. The under-21 or under-19 competitions in England don’t provide this, because games aren’t in front of a lot of fans and there isn’t enough competitive tension,” he said. If Spain and Germany are much better at developing players, he says, it is because clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich all have reserve teams that play in their countries’ second or third division against other professional clubs – not in a separate league, as English youth teams do. “If you manage a boy who has talent and is promising, who is 18 or 19, you can have him training with the first team, but playing in the second, where games are difficult, competitive and you play before crowds of 30,000.”

Manchester City players in training session at the City Football Academy in Manchester.

MCFC players in training at the City Football Academy in Manchester | Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty

Because Premier League clubs are not allowed to field second teams, the primary way to develop promising young players who are not quite ready is to loan them to another club, usually in a lower division; Manchester City, for example, currently has around 20 players out on loan. But once a player is loaned out, the parent club loses control over their development – as Chelsea can testify, having bought up so many young players that more than 30 are on loan at 24 different clubs. At worst, this leads to the warehousing of players and the ruining of promising careers. CFG’s integrated web of clubs, all (in theory) playing the same style of football, is meant to solve that. “In this system we control exactly what they do. The coaching is exactly the same. The playing style is exactly the same,” Soriano said.

If this vision works out, successful players will progress from, say, Torque to New York, and then to Girona, and then – eventually – to Manchester City. CFG will not “own” them, since they will belong to the individual clubs, who must compete against outside bidders and pay transfer fees where appropriate. But CFG clubs will have insider information on the players, who can, in turn, be confident of fitting in with the style at all the other CFG clubs – while transfer income will end up back in a single corporate pot. In May, club officials gave me the example of the Australian midfielder Aaron Mooy, who joined Melbourne City in 2014 and was the team’s player of the year in his first two seasons. CFG decided Mooy was good enough to play in England, and Melbourne sold him to Manchester City for £425,000 in June 2016. But Mooy did not play for the club – he was immediately loaned to Huddersfield Town, who were then a second-division team. After helping them win promotion to the Premier League, Mooy was then sold to Huddersfield – for £10m. The deal shows how CFG can leverage its insider knowledge of players to simply trade them, even if they never actually play in Manchester. The profit from this one transaction, incidentally, was some 40% more than it cost to buy the entire Melbourne club.

Hiring Pep Guardiola was always part of Soriano’s big plan – though enticing him to Manchester required time and patience. One of Soriano’s first City hires was Barcelona’s former director of football, the man responsible for buying new players and helping to choose coaches, Txiki Begiristain. “Immediately we went to talk to Pep, because Pep was the best coach in the world,” Soriano told me. Guardiola had just left Barcelona and was determined to enjoy a sabbatical year in New York. “So we said: ‘OK, come next year’,” Soriano recalled. “And [the next year] he said: ‘I’m sorry, I want to go to Bayern Munich’. So we said: ‘OK, come in three years.’ And he came.” This kind of patience is only available when your owner has no need to cash in and, in a fast-moving sport where fans demand instant results, knows how to play a waiting game.

Guardiola’s prime task is to meet Soriano’s definition of a “number one” club by winning at least one title per season. “That doesn’t mean you win every year, but that in five seasons you win five trophies. It means getting to April with possibilities of winning the Premier League and playing in the semi-finals of the Champions League,” he explained. City have only managed the latter once – in 2015/16, the season before Guardiola arrived – but the target implies winning the Champions League every four years.

Sheikh Mansour (front right) with chairman of Manchester City FC Khaldoon al-Mubarak (front left) and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (front centre) at a training camp in Abu Dhabi, 2017.

Sheikh Mansour (front right) with chairman of Manchester City FC Khaldoon al-Mubarak (front left) and Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola (front centre) at a training camp in Abu Dhabi, 2017 | Victoria Haydn/Manchester City FC via Getty Images

But an implicit part of Guardiola’s job, away from the merry-go-round of matches and press conferences, is to help engineer something that may ultimately prove more valuable – a recognisable and entertaining playing style across all of CFG’s teams and players. Again, the model comes from Barcelona, where players moved seamlessly from junior teams to the Camp Nou because all had learned the same Cruyff-style soccer. In the CFG model, clubs and academies in a dozen countries should be doing the same – creating a frictionless supply line of players who automatically know how to play Pep-style and can slip in and out of the group’s teams. Soriano says that will allow “a more seamless movement of players”, with the best ending up at City.

This may prove more challenging than it sounds. On a warm August afternoon this year, as smoke rose from dozens of tailgate barbecues in gravel-covered parking lots, I joined fans wearing the sky-blue colour of NYCFC as they trooped into the New York Red Bulls stadium in Harrison, New Jersey. David Villa – the 35-year-old former Barcelona player – led them to a 1-1 draw in what has already become New York’s “classic” football derby. But this was relatively scrappy football – the kind played in the second or third divisions of England or Spain.

A few days earlier, I had watched coach Patrick Vieira – who moved here from managing City’s “elite development” under-23 team – train his squad on a pitch in leafy Westchester County, north of New York City. When I asked Vieira, a former Arsenal captain who finished his playing career in Manchester, if his team – whose salaries, under MLS rules, are capped well below Premier League level – always played “City football”, he admitted that it did not. “You can’t play the same football in New York as in Manchester, because of the players,” he said. “What we have in common is a philosophy to play what we call ‘beautiful football’ – the offensive game, to try to have possession, create chances, score goals and play attractive football. The level will be different, but the philosophy tries to be the same.”

As CFG grows and its impact is felt around the world, its rivals are beginning to fear its size, and hover, hawk-like, over its accounts. Javier Tebas, the outspoken lawyer who presides over Spain’s La Liga, clipped CFG’s wings when it appeared on his territory this summer, accusing Girona of misrepresenting the details of five players loaned by City. The club was forced to increase the accounting value of those players – a measure that, given Spain’s budget cap system, left Girona with 4% less money to spend on players’ wages. “We had to correct certain market values … so that loaning of players did not represent unfair competition,” explained Tebas. Girona are still trying to get that decision overturned.

At the Soccerex football business conference in September, Tebas took aim at Manchester again, accusing City of circumventing the rules by taking hidden state aid in the form of sponsorship contracts with public companies from Abu Dhabi. (He had similar complaints about Paris Saint-Germain’s Qatari owners, who he claimed were “pissing in the swimming pool” of European football.) In Tebas’s view, what is provoking inflation in transfer fees and player wages is not fan demand, but Gulf cash and so-called “state clubs” – including “Manchester City and its oil”. City not only denied this, but threatened to sue him – and Uefa has ignored Tebas’s demands that it investigate the club’s finances. But the vocal hostility from the head of a league dominated by Real Madrid and Barcelona is a sign that the latter two – whose not-for-profit, member-controlled structure prevents them taking the CFG route to global expansion – are starting to feel threatened.

Man City star Kevin De Bruyne (centre) during their recent victory over Swansea City.

Man City star Kevin De Bruyne (centre) during their recent victory over Swansea City | Thomas/JMP/REX/Shutterstock

But Tebas’s suggestion that CFG uses its muscle to push the regulatory boundaries is not without merit. In 2014, Uefa punished City with a €20m fine for breaking the financial fair play rules in previous seasons. The Australian league, meanwhile, introduced new rules last year after CFG circumvented the league’s ban on transfer fees between clubs with a ruse that one critic dubbed “farcical”. Manchester City bought a local player called Anthony Cáceres – “outbidding” Australian clubs by paying a transfer fee – before loaning him straight to Melbourne. The league responded by banning the practice for the first year after signing.

The same ownership whose deep pockets have enabled these global ambitions may also be a source of further difficulties – in part because the desire to protect Abu Dhabi’s image looms large at CFG. This has become more challenging as the emirate’s ambitious mega-projects, such as the collection of museums on Saadiyat Island, attract the attention of human rights organisations, who accuse the UAE of violating the rights of migrant construction workers. When emails from the Emirati embassy in Washington were leaked earlier this year, among them was a memo revealing that CFG’s directors had fretted about a proposal to build an NYCFC stadium on parkland in Queens – where there was already public opposition to such a project – out of fear that stadium critics would attack Abu Dhabi’s involvement, targeting its attitude to “gay [rights], women, wealth, Israel”. The project was abandoned, and NYCFC still does not have its own stadium.

There is a central paradox to the economics of football. While the global business has long expanded at annual rates of 10% or more, few clubs have ever made much profit, let alone paid owners an annual dividend. Even the mighty Premier League clubs have, jointly, posted pre-tax losses in three of the last five seasons. And yet the price of clubs keeps rising. Mansour, for example, was estimated to have paid around twice as much for City as the previous owner, the exiled former prime minister of Thailand, Thaksin Shinawatra, had done just 15 months earlier.

Soriano says that sports franchises are exposed, week-in, week-out, to such relentless competition that they are driven to constantly reinvest profits – meaning that owners only really make money by selling. Others see football clubs as a “rarity” for ultra-rich collectors – with billionaires queueing to join the small, exclusive club of those who own famous clubs. These are also incredibly resilient assets: Manchester City, founded by vicar’s daughter Anna Connell to keep working men off booze and brawling in 1880, is one of many now in their second century. “How many companies that were on the New York stock exchange in 1917 still exist?” Soriano asks.

Ultimately, value comes from combining talent and emotion – meaning players and the fans who adore them. This is the “love” Soriano talks about, which CFG must turn into money if it is to become the successful multinational corporation that the owners want. If Guardiola ever sobs for City – something only likely if he wins another Champions League trophy, which Soriano hopes will happen this season – then fans of one of England’s most historic football clubs will happily give themselves up to adoration. Many more might follow them.

But CFG’s multinational corporate model somehow obliges us to take a more hard-nosed view of how much this “love” is really worth. Will CFG ever match a Coca-Cola, Disney or Google for size or value? Manchester City will have to win many more games, and many titles, before that happens – by which time, if the model works, other football multinationals might have appeared, all of them transforming love into money at a global scale. In the hard world of business, of course, there is only one way we will ever find out the “true” monetary value of CFG’s global juggernaut, on the day Mansour, or someone else, sells the company, and the market renders its own judgment – and puts a price on all that love.


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