"It was essential for us to understand what Manchester United had achieved that FC Barcelona could not match. The answer lay in reading the close relationship between economic potential and sporting potential."
Ferran Soriano, 2009
Love Old Trafford or loathe it – and there's been plenty of the latter – the place has been a source of absorption and obsession for the men whose task it has been to transform Manchester City into a global footballing power.
Former chief executive, Garry Cook, read Sir Alex Ferguson's biography Managing my Life from cover to cover and marvelled at the brute toughness which enabled him to survive as a Govan publican. Current chief executive, Ferran Soriano, ogled at the commercial juggernaut which reduced Barcelona, the club he piloted from 2003 to 2008, to a speck in United's rear view mirror. Ferguson's eye for a good player can make rivals look foolish, Soriano has always reflected. During his own stewardship Barcelona dropped out of the bidding for Sporting Lisbon's Cristiano Ronaldo because they thought United's €18m (£14.5m) was too high. Barça instead bought Ricardo Quaresma, who played 22 games, scored once, and was shipped back to Portugal.
With his deep appreciation of which clubs have caught the commercial wave and gone global, Soriano is fascinated by the way that the revenue charts of United and Tottenham Hotspur, who earned identical revenues in 1992-93, diverged in the 10 subsequent years. By 2003, United were making 2.5 times more revenue than Spurs, a growth curve which can be explained in no small degree by United chairman Martin Edwards' inspired decision to hire Edward Freedman, Spurs' head of merchandising, who went to Old Trafford one day in 1992 to sell his own club's expertise to United and ended up driving the marketing juggernaut United became. Barcelona, whose annual revenues were only €4m less than United's in the 1995-96 season were left back in the dust, too, leading Soriano to conclude when he took over at the Nou Camp that: "If United could do it, so could we."
They could. Soriano's Barcelona ultimately eclipsed United's revenues by taking a huge "bet" as he has called it on building an elite team that would ultimately pay for itself and then reap the commercial benefits. It is safe to say that the challenge at City is even greater and United's head start vastly bigger. United, with their anticipated income of around £360m in the current season, are on course to pull half a billion pounds annually within the next few years, thanks to TV and commercial income, and cash subscriptions to a new "affinity" service that will deliver everything from goal clips to birthday messages from the manager and players to the mobile phones and computers of fans around the world
City's £153m turnover was less than half United's in the last financial year. At a time when the club are moving from the first phase of mending and rebuilding the threadbare infrastructure the Abu Dhabi's found to a second phase of commercial exploitation, Soriano knows that the challenge is as simple as it is formidable: City must simply become one of the top five or six clubs in the world if they are to reap the global revenues that United now do.
City's determination to challenge United well beyond the 90 minutes which will play out on Sunday is typified by their six-year, £12m-a-year, kit deal with Nike, which put the club among the game's commercial superpowers in May. But global viewing figures for Premier League sides place all the opposition a huge distance behind United, with Liverpool second, Chelsea and Arsenal further back. United are also confident of securing up to £600m for a 10-year kit deal when their current £23.5m, 13-year agreement, with Nike expires in 2015. Many of City's commercial deals are generally Abu Dhabi: Etihad, Etisalat and Aabar. As yet, City are a very long way from the position Soriano developed for Barcelona, where he and his co-directors were so driven by the idea of establishing a modern brand identity of a socially committed, sophisticated club that they passed up the offer of €20m a year to carry internet betting company Bwin on their shirts and instead paid out €1.5m to UNICEF, for the privilege of wearing their name instead.
Barcelona still can't compete with United and Real Madrid's 1.4m shirt sales. Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Arsenal are next on that table, with City's five-year average of 175,000 per year placing them 17th in Europe. These are still relatively early days. But the off-field gulf between them and the side they host on Sunday reveals why they really could not afford that early Champions League exit, with potentially £20m of revenue gone up in smoke. They will fail the financial fair play test for the first two-year period. They may need to demonstrate that they are reducing their losses fast enough, if they are not to incur Uefa penalties, such as Champions League exclusion.
In his 2009 analysis of the clubs who "aspire to be leaders and global brands," Soriano listed United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal and said that "others, like Manchester City" are trying to be in this group." It is now his task to take them, though precedent suggests that in him United have an inveterate foe. Soriano has played catch-up once before.