In August 2008 Manchester City Football Club was bought by Sheikh Mansour, a move which propelled the club towards the big time and helped to break up the cartel at the top of the Premier League. An FA Cup, Premier League title, and a couple of managers later City are finally starting to look like the real deal. Not just a team with potential, but a team on the cusp of serious and lasting success. And what do you do when you succeed? You expand.
This week brought news of Manchester City’s next big expansion project in Australia following the purchase of Melbourne Heart FC, soon to be renamed Melbourne City FC. This follows the announcement last year of a new Major League Soccer franchise in America, New York City FC. Foreign expansion makes sense for football and financial reasons. It is an offshoot of being under foreign ownership as the lords and masters of Abu Dhabi are not mentally tied to England and the Premier League.
There are many partnerships between football clubs across the globe, but nothing quite like the business model that City are pursuing. Looking back at history, this is beginning to resemble nothing less than a youthful empire. Foreign soil full of potential has been identified and flags have been planted.
It is at this point where smart people will begin to see that whilst there are issues with City’s owners, there are also tangible benefits to Manchester City, the Leagues and the local areas around the clubs. Meanwhile, the other kind of people will continue to cry on about City ‘ruining football’ and buying success across the world because they are incapable of placing thoughts in a wider context.
These latter people will complain about City spending too much money, fielding a team made up purely of foreigners and so on. This flavour of complaint is mostly surface level whingeing, frequently from fans of teams who have been doing similar things for years but now that someone new is playing it suddenly isn’t fair. The cartel at the top of the Premier League needed breaking up. City’s approach may not have been perfect but it worked and the League is a more exciting place now.
However the real problem with City’s owners goes far beyond the football pitch, and concern things that actually matter. Human Rights Watch describes the United Arab Emirates (UAE) as a place that, “continues to crack down on freedom of expression and association.” A place where the authorities, “arbitrarily [detain] scores of individuals,” and put them on trial in, “manifestly unfair,” courts. It is a nation which has built glorious skyscrapers in the desert and raised brand new islands from the sea, all on the back of people from South Asia who could kindly be described as ‘migrant labour’.
The imported workers are kept in what are essentially battery farms and have their passports taken away so they cannot return home. Even if they wanted to return home they cannot even consider it until they have repaid their ‘recruitment fees’. Such ambiguous fees are a staple of people trafficking across the world and have been for centuries.
German MEP Barbara Lochbihler, the chair of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on human rights, says migrant workers in the UAE are exploited, “on a daily basis. […] minimum labour standards are not respected, there are systemic complaints about poor accommodation and sanitation, salaries and medical services are withheld, and both experts and the migrants themselves excessive police force and situations of forced labour.” It is worth pointing out at this juncture that whilst the UAE is a member of the International Labour Organisation, it has not ratified UN conventions regarding freedom of association which would allow for industrial action.
It is up to every City fan to weigh the club’s recent success against a regime which counts a woman’s view as only half as valuable as a man’s in most criminal matters, has banned homosexuality and treats migrant workers as less than human. Personally, it will never sit completely correctly with me, but that is now the price of continuing to support Manchester City. Pretending one exists without the other is dishonest and suggests a lack of empathy most commonly associated with a serial killer. The natives of New York and Melbourne will soon have to make a similar judgment. The claim that the Sheikh is using City (and now other clubs) in order to, “effectively launder the reputation of a country perpetrating serial human rights abuses,” is not a baseless one and should be thought on by all fans.
In spite of the myriad evil and shameful practices abided to in the UAE, New York and Melbourne can expect to reap the benefits of their new association. Based on the experience of having Sheikh Mansour, Khaldoon al Mubarak, Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain in charge at City there are some specific things which are very likely to happen.
A particular focus of the Sheikh’s time in Manchester has been spending on infrastructure with the final aim being not just long term sustainability, but prosperity. This applies financially and in terms of the playing staff.
The most conspicuous building development is the Etihad Campus due to open in 2015 which will be the envy of world football. A £100million build, it will be the jewel in Manchester City’s crown and secure the club’s future for years to come. All the teams will train there including the youth team and the newly minted Manchester City Women’s Football Club. The City youth teams have been enjoying a lot of success recently and this will only continue with new, state of the art facilities.
This investment in youth football has been mirrored by plans to expand the Etihad Stadium at the North and South ends. The increased capacity will help to secure the financial future of the club, a factor which will become central to almost all decisions with the new Financial Fair Play laws looming.
Both projects provide the local area with jobs and pump money into the local economy, something which is welcome in these times of economic hardship.
Investment in infrastructure will be even more vital in America and Australia as both the MLS and the A-League currently have stringent wage caps which are not present in England. This precludes the simple approach of paying the best players more than anywhere else in the league, as in the early days at City following the takeover, and necessitates a more cunning approach. Having top quality stadiums and training facilities in place will make the most of City’s obvious financial muscle whilst staying within the bounds of the Leagues.
Ferran Soriano is on record promoting the virtues of investing locally. “We’re looking for a home, not a place to play,” Soriano said on Friday. “This is very important and it drives everything we do. A home means we want a place where we can build a building. It’s got to make commercial sense but it makes civic sense. We have to be accepted and wanted by the community.
“This is why the first thing we do is listen,” he added. “We’ll keep on working with the city, looking at several sites.”
Several sites have so far been mooted in New York, but nothing has been tied down as of yet. In addition, Claudio Reyna has hinted some concrete information on a training facility for the new team could be announced within the month. “We are very close to making an announcement with that,” he said. “We feel – Jason [Kreis] and I – that that’s as important [as the stadium].”
A friend of mine is a Melboune native and has informed me that the Heart currently train on local university pitches, a situation that is unlikely to appeal to the bosses at City. If that is the case then construction of a training facility in Melbourne seems a likely course for the near future.
The strong focus of the City hierarchy on ideas of ‘home’ and ‘community’ has also manifested itself in choice of coaches and directors at NYCFC. MLS expert Graham Parker noted that, “the MLS expansion side has been under intense scrutiny […] for any signs that might betray a tin ear for the dialect of soccer in America.” They have had to prove at every step that they are not callous invaders. To this end, NYCFC have employed highly respected American soccer figures – Claudio Reyna, Jason Kreis – in lieu of expensive foreign imports and it is a move which has gone down very well indeed.
A similar approach can be expected in Australia as the club will try to adapt to the local culture rather than force the A-League to conform to European norms. The partnership with local Melbourne businessman Bart Campbell shows the same desire to blend into the local sporting landscape that the partnership with the New York Yankees did in America. In the case of Melbourne Heart and their pre-existing fan base, the process may be a bit bumpier.
Whatever ends up happening, this is a uniquely exciting time to be a Manchester City fan. The last six and a half years have been strange enough, but watching our club’s name become famous across the world will bring even more curiosities. There is plenty of evidence that New York and Melbourne will benefit from the City renaissance just as Manchester has. There is a very dark side to our club’s owners, but they have shown themselves to take a different, more patient approach to the game of football than many others. It is worth remembering at this point that long term success is to the Sheikh’s benefit as well as ours, and that should give some confidence if nothing else does.
Written by Alex Timperley