I am a Manchester United fan. Or at least I was. Up until the cultural shift in English football’s biggest club following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure and the poor treatment of Cristiano Ronaldo after his return. Given that the northwest of England and the city of Manchester specifically is commonly viewed as the heartland of English football, it surprises me today to note that I wasn’t even fully aware of Manchester City’s existence until relatively recently. They are certainly harder to miss these days.
And yet Manchester City Football Club – or “Man City” – is one of the UK’s oldest clubs. With a history dating back 143 years, the Sky Blues set a new standard in Istanbul this month by winning their first ‘treble’ of trophies, only the second English club ever to do so. And in the process secured their first seismic Champions League victory. In pipping Arsenal and cross-city rivals Manchester United to win the Premier League and FA Cup earlier in the season, Rodri’s 68th-minute goal against Inter Milan elevated Man City into the elite ranks of just seven other clubs to achieve the accolade since Celtic’s pioneering ‘treble’ in 1967.
This trophy has of course been a long time coming. And among the legions of football fans I’ve spoken to in person and online it seems everyone has a different opinion on how they did it.
Without a doubt, the club today is arguably the most well-run in the world. They have a world-class manager in Pep Guardiola, huge financial resources, squad depth, and a serious focus on youth development, infrastructure and tactical ability. The vast majority of clubs worldwide could be forgiven for looking upon Man City and feeling a touch of envy.
However, we should remember that very few of these factors were real until recently. And specifically 2008, when the club was purchased by Abu Dhabi United Group.
A little bit of history. After a period of financial uncertainty under the previous administration, a series of high-profile signings followed, including a record-breaking £32.5 million transfer for Real Madrid’s Robinho, galvanizing the club’s performance in the process and enabling them to reach the UEFA Cup semis in the same season. The signings of pedigree forwards Emmanuel Adebayor and Carlos Tevez quickly followed and the new owners also hired Inter Milan manager, Roberto Mancini who pushed the club up to an unprecedented fifth in the Premier League while securing a place in the UEFA Europa League.
By 2011, Man City was comfortably recognized as a league contender, reaching its first FA Cup Final in thirty years before clinching the Premier League title in 2012 in what is widely recognized as one of the greatest final days in the league’s history. They firmly established themselves as league toppers in the following seasons, securing the League Cup and Premier League titles in the 2013 – 2014 season, with a second League Cup in 2016. However, the next major shift in the club’s performance came in the same year with the arrival of Pep Guardiola.
Equipped with an intimidating track record including being the youngest manager to win the UEFA Champions League, and the most consecutive league games won in La Liga and the Bundesliga, Guardiola’s move to City was seen as inevitable by many. According to AFP Sports, before the official announcement, “City’s owner Sheikh Mansour sees in Guardiola a coach capable of bringing dazzling football to the Etihad Stadium and, crucially, helping the club make a long-awaited breakthrough in the Champions League.” They weren’t wrong.
With a reputation for detail as formidable and legendary as his silverware collection, Guardiola brought with him a razor-sharp focus on tactical innovation and player development. The stylish Catalan has crafted a persona as a maverick and somewhat of a “mad scientist”, always experimenting and improvising while retaining his possession-based style of play centered on quick passes and positional interchanges. With the right players and unwavering support of club chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, he was now unstoppable.
Indisputably, the club’s ability to attract the right managers and players has taken Man City far, however, the club’s decision to cultivate talent which is now paying dividends.
This was a pledge made by Sheikh Mansour, who committed to nurturing talent by creating a sustainable youth development program.
There are of course cynics who only credit Man City’s performance on “Arab Money.” This is short-sighted. When looking at recent data, Man City barely scraped the top ten in terms of its five-year net spend, ending the 2022-2023 season in the black by £8.3m. Put in context, Man City’s total five-year spend is half that of Premier League runners-up, Arsenal, whose net-spend balance for the 2022 – 2023 season put the club £148.94m in the red.
It seems that Man City’s focus on playing the long game has paid off at almost every level. By harnessing the existing passion for a sport that echoes around the globe, the club has succeeded in finding the very best people from forwards to physios, while training and upskilling a new generation to learn and succeed in the future. In so doing, the Manchester City brand has quadrupled its fanbase to 38 million since 2010 and in the 2016 – 2017 season became the first premier league club to reach one million YouTube subscribers. Man City is now ranked fifth on Forbes World’s Most Valuable Soccer Teams, worth an estimated $4.99bn. Having bought the club for a relatively paltry £210m in 2008, Abu Dhabi United Group has every reason to celebrate.
Replete with nine League titles, eight League Cups, seven FA Cups, six FA Community Shields, one European Cup Winners’ Cup and a Champions League title, there is no doubt Man City has earned its place amongst football’s elite. Winning is now no longer a surprise, but an expectation and I think that this is just the start of what’s to come next in the evolution of the modern game.
Football is a shared passion for both Emiratis and Israelis and it’s hugely exciting to see both nationalities sit together in the stand. And earlier this month another historic moment came when between Maccabi Haifa and the UAE’s Al Ain Football Club to transfer Omer Atzili, marking the first time an Israeli played for an Arab team. Sport, and football in particular, has the powerful ability to break down barriers and bring us all together.