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Manchester City’s history shows there was never a golden age of ownership | Manchester City

IAs a Manchester City fan, it was an uplifting moment, although I masked my optimism with some of the most tragic chants I’ve ever heard on a football pitch. “We’re not really here”; “Empty seats at home”; and “Spend all my money on drugs and the cityThe rise of Manchester City has been so rapid that fans are still very Manchester, and probably not as familiar as fans of other big teams. Yet they, like other fans, are obsessed with scrutinizing every aspect of the team, from the pitch to the training ground to corporate decisions. The idea that City fans ignore the importance of club ownership to our success – or even the ‘elephant in the room’ – is far from the truth.

My own fan story sounds unusual, but I suspect it isn’t. In the late 1980’s I released a 12″ hip-hop record at Factory and became a City supporter with the contagious enthusiasm of A&R man Mike Pickering and co-founder Rob Gretton. I was in my late 20s and joined the team late, but I lived near Maine Road and the team embodies ideals I admire: fun in adversity, nerve-wracking and zany timing. By 2002, I was living in the Middle East and feeling homesick. I started following the city more obsessively, like a quirky soap opera. This was the era of Stuart Pierce as a broker, owned by fugitive Thai politician Thaksin Shinawatra, and most famously managed by Richard Dunn’s wife, Helen.

In 2003 Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and in 2007 Alisher Usmanov bought Arsenal. The two are Russian politicians sanctioned for their ties to Vladimir Putin. The powerful billionaires who are using their resources to change life in the UK must be scrutinized. If we’re more keen to focus on Arab princes than Russian oligarchs, at least we’re starting to ask questions now. I am only against Gulf Arabs being tied together as if their ownership models, strategic goals, states and even the people themselves are interchangeable.

The city is owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a prominent figure in Abu Dhabi, the principal principality of the seven-strong federation of the United Arab Emirates. Mansour is the fifth son of Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi, Fatima bint Mubarak Al Ketbi Known as the “Mother of the Sheikhs” after her six sons came to rule in Abu Dhabi 20 years ago. Mansour is the chief adviser to his older brother, UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, and also serves as vice president and deputy prime minister (by convention, the UAE prime minister is the leader of Dubai). Like other principalities such as Monaco, Abu Dhabi is an authoritarian state. The greater UAE federation is a complex power negotiation between multiple aristocratic stakeholders, governed by a constitution and clan pacts. In this highly politicized environment, Mansour has earned a formidable reputation as a statesman and business strategist. Abu Dhabi has the third-richest state fund in the world, but unlike Qatar’s ownership of Paris Saint-Germain or Saudi Arabia’s holding of Newcastle, Manchester City is not state-owned.

Given Mansour’s popularity in Abu Dhabi, it is reasonable to ask whether he has used his influence to secure sweetheart deals and fuel City’s rise. Yet no one sees urban projects as burning cash without regard to profitability: it’s the most modern business proposition, a disruptive start-up. If Manchester City is an example of sport, this image is that of the megalomaniacal sports scientist and Harvard MBA. Seeing evidence of ruthless business tactics in football on the pitch, however, is like a Victorian novelist reading the psychology of characters in the weather. This is a projection. Say, there’s an aesthetic difference between Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Pep Guardiola’s City, but it’s style rather than politics, just as the greasy sweat of a rocker gives way to hipster cool.

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan
The Manchester City boss has earned a formidable reputation as a statesman and business strategist. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters

City’s management team has always been driven by the ambition to create a global entertainment product, and global ambitions require confidence in a rules-based order. How else to sell a highly codified campaign in multiple markets? It would be cynical if City were found guilty of breaking the rules to speed up a project – the ‘cake eat it’ attitude of a company backed by an army of lawyers. The bigger question is whether you think Disney or Sony is the right model for football and whether the outcome will bring the English league rivalry to an end. If not, a clear analysis is the first step in solving the problem. If the Premier League becomes a heavy-duty product like F1 to ensure competitiveness, will anyone still bet on a well-functioning Manchester City to continue to win?

Qatar, Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia have very different histories, and different visions for the future. Qatar has yet to show any interest in football as a sustainable business and adding value was not a key reason why Saudi Arabia bought Newcastle. Saudi Arabia’s embrace of the beautiful sport looks the closest it can get to a classic sport purge, though not directly as a cover for political violence at home and abroad. Since its inception, Saudi Arabia’s entire foreign policy has been to spread a dogmatic version of Islam, which has become a problem for the regime and its allies. Football marked a shift towards modernity, but not much liberalization in practice.

Qatar has a different problem. It is torn between two hostile and powerful states, Saudi Arabia and Iran, and uses football to boost its diplomatic profile. Football is Qatar’s insurance policy. Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani may indeed like Manchester United. With Qatar already using football as a foreign policy tool, Jassim seems unlikely to manage United on his own, not least because Jassim’s father was the architect of Qatar’s unique third way when he was the country’s prime minister.

With the fresh round of allegations against City, the latest Terrace catchphrase “We’ll cheat when we want to” is funny, if not loud or mature. City may be sanctioned for dishonesty, but fans have seen the club degenerate faster and deeper with mismanagement and poor football. The history of the city shows that there was never a golden age of ownership. Sanctions will be a judgment on the leadership team: let us not think that it is a judgment on the country and its culture.

Nicholas Blincoe is the author of Nobler Than War: Football Stories in Israel and Palestine.

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