sport news ROB DRAPER: Manchester City's football is dazzling, sublime - but can we really ... trends now
Football is about men in boots, not men in suits, a colleague reminded me last week, quoting the advice of a wise sports editor from the days before women’s football became the phenomenon it is now.
The game is about players, not owners and directors. The glory game, as Danny Blanchflower christened it, is about nights like last Wednesday at the Etihad, that roar of support, the passion of fans, the sheer majesty of a player like Kevin De Bruyne, the exhilaration of Erling Haaland, the magician-like impishness of Bernardo Silva and the joy of Jack Grealish.
Not since Barcelona overwhelmed Manchester United at Wembley in 2011 have we seen anything quite like Manchester City’s 4-0 demolition of Real Madrid. Fabio Capello’s AC Milan beat Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0 in a Champions League final in 1994 in the game of that decade. This was a similar scale of evisceration, a triumph of Pep Guardiola’s footballing mind and a tactical landmark for the ages.
We have witnessed extraordinary European nights and Liverpool’s 4-0 win over Barcelona tops City’s achievement for sheer drama and jaw-dropping incredulity. Yet there has been nothing quite so dominant in a clash of two teams acknowledged as Europe’s best.
And that is the problem City have. Their brilliance has become predictable. Jeopardy is waning. There perhaps hasn’t been as one-sided a European Cup/Champions League final as Inter v Manchester City since Barcelona took on Steaua Bucharest in 1986. (Spoiler alert: Steaua won on penalties. Anything can happen.)
Manchester City step closer to making history with their third Premier League win in a row
Their demolition of Real Madrid has landed them a place in the Champions League final
But City's success has been a combination of the strength of both the men in boots and the men in suits
So, while it is about the men in boots, it also about men in suits, because Khaldoon Al Mubarak, City’s chairman, has made football like this. Back in 2014, when City had their first brush with UEFA over financial fair play regulations, City’s legal counsel revealed in an email that Al Mubarak ‘says he would rather spend £30m on the best 50 lawyers in the world and sue them [UEFA] for the next 10 years’ rather than agree to a financial penalty that UEFA were proposing.
We’re now 13 years in from when the first alleged offences of topping up sponsorship with sovereign wealth of Abu Dhabi were recorded and the lawyers’ bill will be well over £30million, as City continue their fight, now against the Premier League’s 115 charges of inaccurate financial reporting, non co-operation and not providing full details of a manager’s and players’ remuneration.
Their latest salvo last week was to object to the head of the Premier League’s independent judicial panel, Murray Rosen KC. His chambers website says he is an Arsenal fan. If that is the basis of their complaint, we are, as one observer pointed out, already at the level of debate usually reserved for a Twitter spat. But it would be consistent with the Al Mubarak strategy of kicking the can down the road. And what’s a few more thousands to the lawyers when the GDP of Abu Dhabi was $299billion last year, party thanks to soaring oil prices?
It’s not just about the money, though. Every Manchester City executive would stress that and they would be right. If it were, they would have been European champions long ago. And Manchester United would go toe to toe with them every year in the Premier League. Manchester City’s turnover was an Ancelotti-eyebrow-raising £613m in 2022 and United’s was £583m. A properly-run football club should have been able to sustain title races in recent years but United haven’t been that for a long time.
Yet it is also about the money and the ability of others to compete with a nation state. For those that insist that Man City is a private investment, owner Sheik Mansour is vice-president, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of the Presidential Court of the United Arab Emirates, while chairman Al Mubarak is also the chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority, which is the office of Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s leader, the President of the United Arab Emirates and Mansour’s brother. Mubarak is also CEO of Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, whose chairman is Sheik Mansour and whose former chairman was Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed.
Khaldoon Al Mubarak (left) has in part helped shape the modern footballing landscape
And Al Mubarak is adept at wearing those different hats. So, when City’s shirt sponsor Nexen was announced in 2017, Mubadala separately announced a private equity investment in Nexen. And when US private equity firm Silver Lake announced a $500m investment in City Football Group in November 2019, shortly after, in September 2020, Mubadala announced a £2bn investment in Silver Lake.
Indeed, we have Arsenal and Liverpool to thank that only two of City’s five title wins in the last six years have been runaways. A year ago, Tim Payton of the Arsenal Supporters Trust, one of the fans who played a key role in bringing down the Super League, said: ‘Because Liverpool have been so amazingly good and outperformed the metrics, it’s hidden the fact that we’re getting very close to same problem with City as Germany have with Bayern Munich.’
Little did he know that Arsenal would take up the slack when Liverpool faltered this season, but the fact that we are casting two Super League conspirators, the biggest clubs in the country after United, as plucky underdogs gives you an idea of the issue. Arsenal aren’t exactly Leicester 2016.
Until that night at the Etihad when Arsenal were picked apart, it was an intriguing title race, so it’s arguable that