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What are Man City? Premier League champions, the greatest team ever and a ‘sportswashing instrument’ of a foreign state

A club aiming to become just the fifth to win three league titles in a row continues to make history, but behind it lurks a policy far more questionable than simply ‘good PR’

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
Friday 09 August 2019 15:38 BST
Pep Guardiola expects more challengers for Premier League trophy this season

There are many possible descriptions of the Manchester City project right now, of many different shades, but one of the most accurate is that they are probably the most advanced football club in the world. That doesn’t just apply to their thinking. There’s also their planning.

The preparations for this summer’s transfer business actually stretch back over 18 months, to Saturday 16 December 2017, on the morning of a match with Tottenham Hotspur. Pep Guardiola was obviously ruminating on the game – a comprehensive 4-1 victory – in that intensely fixated way he does, but the club so sophisticatedly works on so many levels that he also sat in on a high-level meeting with chairman Khaldoon al Mubarak, chief executive Ferran Soriano and director of football Txiki Begiristain to discuss signings right up to this window. The thinking is that all business is based on the medium-term future, so no transfer is borne of panic or mere reaction. It naturally helps minimise mistakes, and has only maximised the evolution of this team.

The idea at the end of that meeting was City would by now likely need another centre-half, another forward and definitely another number-six to succeed Fernandinho. The club went through their typically meticulous recruitment process and eventually came to Rodri. He is a player that, as the Community Shield already confirmed, just fits.

That’s how well the club works. That’s how organic it all appears. That’s how they win so many games in the manner they won the 2019 FA Cup final. They’re just conditioned to perform to such a high level that clubs of Watford’s profile can’t even begin to compete.

The same is starting to apply for many of City’s closer rivals. This is the inevitable consequence of “creating a culture of excellence” at absolutely every level of the club, duly backed by a level of long-term investment beyond any other club. “Best in class” was the phrase – and the aim – that kept being repeated going right back to the very first days of the takeover, and we’re now seeing that applied to its fullest.

One story from pre-season has it that Guardiola even told a member of the backroom staff he would not be coming on the tour if he was a kilogram overweight. These are the standards of a genius. These are the levels.

This is why so many expect such an oppressively brilliant operation to end the season described as champions again.

Even the internal analytics of many of their rivals calculate City will win the Premier League by six points, racking up 95 points-plus for the third season in a row. If that is the case, as seems almost inevitable, they will not just have amassed an improbable number of points over such an impressively long period of time for football, they will have become just the fifth club – and sixth team – to have won the English title three times in a row. That would be another landmark to go with being the first team in 10 years to defend the Premier League, the first to reach 100 points and so many other records.

The teams to do three in a row

Huddersfield Town: 1923-26

Arsenal: 1932-35

Liverpool: 1981-84

Manchester United: 1998-2001

Manchester United: 2006-09

We are of course talking about a true football golden age from one of the all-time great teams, of the type that echoes through history and leaves a legacy, instigating grander discussions about what it all means and what it all represents.

That, however, also happens to be the biggest question of all with City and their ownership.

The exact level of this success may obviously be the end product of Guardiola’s genius, which is so amplified by a club that has spared no expense in making every single element of it absolutely perfect for him, but the starting point – and root of it all – remains the 2008 takeover by Abu Dhabi United Group.

And that continues to bring other descriptions of City, very different to “advanced”, “brilliant” or even just “champions”.

Take what an opposition staff member said to his players after one high-profile, high-scoring defeat last season.

“You weren’t up against a team today, lads, you were up against a state.”

It is a view many are now resigned to in England, and many more are getting wise to in Europe. Liga president Javier Tebas’ criticisms are well known, but the reality is they are shared by figures at many top continental clubs. Silvio Berlusconi – of all people – cited it as a reason for getting out of the game.

These would merely be convenient excuses for beaten rivals, except for the fact they also represent wholly inconvenient analyses from virtually all authorities on Abu Dhabi.

Experts from Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and so many universities who specialise in the area have offered the following descriptions of City’s ownership:

  • “One of football’s most brazen attempts to ‘sportswash’ a country’s deeply tarnished image.”
  • “An instrument of foreign policy.”
  • “An outright state vehicle.”
  • “An exercise in soft power.”

These are the sort of analyses from the sort of authorities that are simply too serious to be ignored. They demand focus and profound reflection. Only pointing to what’s on the pitch doesn’t really cut it, since such investment explains and drives what happens there.

There’s an even more striking thought.

If such descriptions from the most authoritative experts are indeed true, it means every City trophy success involves a grand foreign policy – from a state which has had some of the gravest questions asked regarding its human rights record – being unthinkingly applauded through.

This is the very essence of “sportswashing”, and reflects its spectacular success.

“Sportswashing” is after all far more sophisticated than the basic perception of “good PR”. It is about the integration and normalisation of a state’s presence and interests, which is so simply signified with every piece of ‘Etihad’ branding.

This is also a cornerstone of a concerted Abu Dhabi policy, first detailed in ‘The Club’, a brilliant book by Joshua Robinson and Jonathan Clegg on the growth of the Premier League as a global sports business.

“The vision was to paint a picture of a globally relevant, dynamic, welcoming nation built on the traditional values of the Gulf,” Robinson and Clegg write. “Laid out in a couple of documents with sexy names – Policy Agenda 2007-08 and The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030 – Abu Dhabi’s soft-power offensive relied on three crucial tools. The first was the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority. Then there was Abu Dhabi’s very own international airline, Etihad Airways.

“Finally, Abu Dhabi sought to make its presence felt in international sport.”

Sheikh Mansour (pictured) decided to bring in a more prominent figure in the form of chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak

Nothing in international sport has a presence like football, or the Premier League – and it's telling that these documents were published just before one of Abu Dhabi’s most prominent royal princes bought one of the competition’s clubs.

This is one of many facts that greatly complicates the naive view that this is all a mere private enterprise from Sheikh Mansour – a man who has still only been to one City match.

Football academic and historian David Goldblatt finds such a view laughable.

“As we know with ruling families in places like Abu Dhabi, and the United Arab Emirates of which it forms the biggest part, there is no dividing line between the public and the private. They are the state.”

Another fact is that this was something made transparent in the very first takeover meeting back in August 2008. When intermediary Amanda Staveley and Mansour advisor Ali Jassim met with Garry Cook, the then-City CEO told them: “If you’re developing your nation and you’re looking to be on a global stage, we are your proxy brand for the nation.”

Manchester City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak

The takeover initially saw Sulaiman al-Fahim installed as frontman, but his exact level of front – and some outlandish public statements – dismayed those in charge. ‘The Club’ describes how the royal family – rather than Mansour, a prince who has already had one wealth fund taken over by big brother Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi – ordered his replacement by someone with a much more polished CV and personality, and a much more prominent role in Abu Dhabi and the wider UAE federation: current club chairman al-Mubarak.

There couldn’t be a better personification of how important City are to Abu Dhabi. Al-Mubarak is often described by experts as the UAE’s “de facto prime minister”, and literally described by the country itself as “Chairman of the Executive Affairs Authority of the Government of Abu Dhabi”, “mandated to provide strategic policy advice to the Chairman of Abu Dhabi’s Executive Council, His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan”. He is in fact one of Bin Zayed’s – and not Mansour’s – most trusted advisors, and always in the room when the crown prince meets leaders like Vladimir Putin.

Al-Mubarak quickly understood that City gave Abu Dhabi a level of global exposure and connections few other properties could match.

He similarly has a profile in the country few actual ministers can match. The same can be said for long-time City board member Simon Pearce, a PR guru who came from Burson-Marsteller, the notorious crisis-management business infamous for working with Nicolae Ceauseşcu.

Pearce is cited as one of the authors of the nation’s ‘Vision’ documents, and described in emails by General Mike Hindmarsh – the man who effectively ran the war in Yemen for the UAE – as “MBZ’s media advisor”.

The links to the most central Abu Dhabi power could not be clearer or more undeniable.

That admittedly makes it unclear why this has only become an issue now, and City fans might fairly wonder why this has all only really come up when they enjoy so much success.

The reason, however, is the very success of their entire media approach. It is only really a number of recent steps and developments that have brought it to light.

The first was actually an article coincidentally published on the same weekend as that transfer meeting on 16 December 2017. It was by UAE expert and former Human Rights Watch employee Nicholas McGeehan, who effectively wrote it because of his frustration that the links between Abu Dhabi and the club were going so ignored.

The second step was just two months later, and entirely self-inflicted. It was when Guardiola wore a yellow ribbon in admittedly admirable support of imprisoned Catalan politicians, but put his reasoning down to “human rights” rather than any personal politics. This immediately drew focus – and questions – on his ultimate employers and the human rights record of Abu Dhabi, as well as their much-criticised involvement in the Yemen war.

The really big step, however, was Der Spiegel’s Football Leaks in November 2018. Controversially unveiling so many internal club policies and decision-making processes on everything from media policy to Financial Fair Play, it only brought further scrutiny on the exact intentions and workings of this whole project.

The details of those leaks have already directly led to new investigations from Uefa over allegations of lying about violations of Financial Fair Play regulations.

City have repeatedly denied any wrongdoing but high-level sources close to the situation feel the club will be found guilty when it all comes to a head around September, and that a suspension from the Champions League for up to three seasons will be recommended. Such an outcome would certainly complicate the legacy of this time, and maybe bring some other descriptions of the club.

There is a fear from investigators that it could all end in something of a fudge, as has just happened with AC Milan. Other Uefa sources however maintain there is now a real will within the governing body to mark a boundary with City, for multiple reasons. One was a specific detail revealed by Football Leaks, which appalled many in Nyon. That was the email sent by the club’s chief legal adviser Simon Cliff, apparently making light of the 2014 death of Jean-Luc Dehaene, who had led the investigatory chamber: “1 down, 6 to go.”

There is also a belief that this could be fundamental to the future of Uefa itself. For all the inevitable focus on Financial Fair Play, other high-level sources feel this is just a symptom of what City are rather than the fundamental problem in itself. Many within the body see City – or, more specifically, Soriano – as intent on breaking them up and redrawing the game itself. They are perceived as a central club in plans for a new European super league.

At what point do City fans question what their success is worth?

Whatever the exact truth of that, City do actively want to change the very parameters of football. Soriano has already led the charge in changing financial distribution within the Premier League, but it goes much further.

Soriano saw in the club a blank slate – and the necessarily ample funds – for his grand plan of global franchises that resulted in the creation of City Football Group. It similarly links so much of this together that a club in New York – and a stadium within its five boroughs – was viewed as essential, and not just for football. Because of its political and social capital.

It all means that, whatever about a state, the project can certainly look like an empire.

This is just one other reason they are by far the most lavishly-funded project in football history, way beyond transfers. They have undertaken an investment in intelligence and infrastructure that has never been seen.

It is similarly why Khaldoon’s arguments about not breaking the world transfer record sound a little hollow and somewhat strategic. Refusing to spend over £65m isn’t all that relevant if your bench is filled with £40m-plus players and your record signing Riyad Mahrez is so expendable he only makes 14 appearances in a title-winning campaign.

City’s squad remains one of the most stacked in the world. Adding a centre-half would only really be making it perfect.

That’s what so much of this amounts to. That’s why this Premier League season feels wholly predictable.

Another question to add to what City are is whether they can be stopped.

Guardiola’s intense approach does have an impact on the players

Guardiola’s own perfectionism, counter-intuitively, may end up proving one complication. All of the players obviously think he’s a genius, but some do find him too intense. It is understood to be one reason why there are differences between Guardiola and Leroy Sane.

There is the possibility those kind of demands can’t be sustained, either by the players or Guardiola himself. It is why some think he may well leave in two years, especially if they are banned from the Champions League.

But this is what it’s coming down to: relatively vague arguments about the problems with perfection.

This is what City are.

This is why they are widely expected to be champions again and make history once more.

It just demands new reflection of what this all means.

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