The long read: Football has already been transformed by big money but the businessmen behind Man City are trying to build a global corporation that will change the game for ever
On 19 December 2009, Pep Guardiola stood and wept in the middle of Zayed Sports City Stadium in Abu Dhabi. The 38-year-old Barcelona manager clasped a hand across his face as his body gave way to huge, shoulder-heaving sobs. Zlatan Ibrahimovi, the clubs towering Swedish striker, wrapped a tattooed arm around Guardiolas neck and then gave him a vigorous push in order to jolt him out of it. But Guardiola could not stop. It was a strange place for the worlds most celebrated football coach to break down: Barcelona had just won a game that few people watched on television to secure one of footballs most obscure titles, the Fifa Club World Cup. But the victory secured an unbreakable record: Barcelona had won all six titles available to any club in a single year. That is why Pep was sobbing.
Back at home in Barcelona, it was a bittersweet moment for Ferran Soriano. A hairdressers son from the citys working-class district of Poblenou, Soriano had become one of FC Barcelonas top executives and had helped build what could now claim to be the greatest football team the world had ever seen. I was happy, but it was also painful not to be there when the team reached its pinnacle, he told me. Instead, he picked up the phone and called Guardiola.
Soriano had overseen Barcelonas finances for five years until 2008, and the clubs record owed much to the ideas he had developed after running a US-style political campaign to bring a group of swashbuckling, sharp-suited young men to power at elections for a new board of directors in 2003. He had even written a book, La Pelota no entra por azar (The ball doesnt go in by chance), in which he argued that Barcelonas success and, by inference, that record was the result of good, creative business management. Vicious political infighting had driven him to resign from the club the previous year. But even before that, he had seen one of his more ambitious ideas to set up franchise clubs in other countries thwarted at Barcelona. This was a step too far for a club owned by 143,000 voting fans, firmly rooted in their city and Catalonia.
But Sorianos big idea has now been brought to life by two men who were watching very closely on the night Guardiola wept in Abu Dhabi: one is a member of the United Arab Emirates ruling family, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan, and the other is Khaldoon al-Mubarak, a youthful executive and adviser to the royal family. With their backing, Soriano is now upending footballs established order by building its first true multinational corporation a Coca-Cola of soccer.
That corporation is City Football Group (CFG). It already owns, or co-owns, six clubs on four continents, and the contracts of 240 male professional players and two dozen women. Hundreds more carefully picked teenagers and younger children who aspire to greatness play in CFGs lower teams. The longterm ambition is huge. The company will trawl the world for players shaping and polishing them in state-of-the-art academies and training facilities across several continents, selling them on or sending the best to the clubs it will own (and improve) in a dozen or so countries. Supplied and shielded by the vessels around it, the flagship of this new football flotilla Manchester City FC will continue its already startling rise to become the worlds greatest club.
That is the Soriano idea or at least, a simplified version of a complex plan. The corporation is only four years old, but it is rapidly becoming one of the most powerful forces in the worlds favourite sport watched with awe, envy and fear by those who wonder if it could become footballs own Google or Facebook.
In a game where top players cost 200m, televised matches attract audiences of hundreds of millions and club owners are among the wealthiest potentates on the planet, no expense is spared in seeking any competitive edge. Once upon a time, money alone was enough to make the difference (if it was spent wisely), but that is no longer the case, in part because there is so much of it sloshing around the game.
When Manchester City won the Premier League in 2012, Sheikh Mansour was widely accused of buying the title for 1bn the amount of money he had poured into City since purchasing the club four years earlier. It was Citys first major trophy in 36 years, and grown men cried when Sergio Ageros goal in the penultimate minute of the seasons final game secured the title. Mansour watched it on television: he had only ever been to one match at Citys Etihad stadium, and did not enjoy the fuss his visit caused. In the hours that followed, his phone hummed, filling up with 2,500 messages.