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Champions League: Abu Dhabi's geopolitical triumph

DW Matthew Ford Sports
Matt Ford
June 11, 2023

Manchester City have won the Champions League and completed a historic treble. The triumph constitutes a geopolitical coup for Abu Dhabi and is indicative of where football finds itself in 2023, writes DW's Matt Ford.

Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour (middle), chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak (right) and UAE president Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (left) at the Champions League Final in Istanbul.
Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour of Abu Dhabi attended only his second ever gameImage: Mark Pain/empics/picture alliance

From the Mancunian heartlands of Cheadle, Oldham, Gorton and Newton Heath, from Turkey itself and even as far as Australia, Manchester City supporters traveled to Istanbul from across Manchester and indeed across the world to see their team win the Champions League and complete a historic treble.

While some will have been more recent converts, others will have followed the club from its flirt with bankruptcy in the English third division in 1999 all the way to the pinnacle of European football on the banks of the Bosporus.

They are entitled to celebrate the achievement just as much as those directly responsible for realizing it on the pitch: one of the most gifted sets of players to have ever played the game , coached by the mercurial Pep Guardiola; who, by winning his third Champions League 12 years after his second, becomes the first coach to win the treble with two different clubs.

However, it was the presence of two men in particular at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium, one sporting a blue and white scarf around his neck as he attended only his second ever City game, which told the real story of where professional football finds itself in 2023.

Football instrumentalized

Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi is the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and owner of the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), which took over Manchester City in 2008. It handed over control of the club in 2014 to the newly-created City Football Group (CFG), in which it retains an 81% stake. 

Officially, ADUG insists it is a privately owned investment vehicle which has no links to the government of Abu Dhabi. Leaked internal documents suggest otherwise, as did the presence of Sheikh Mansour's older brother, UAE president Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, next to him in the VIP box on Saturday.

Fifteen years and billions of dollars on from their 2008 takeover, Sheikh Mansour and Abu Dhabi have achieved through Manchester City what they set out to do: establish the tiny emirate on the Persian Gulf as a major player in international sports.

The purpose of this has been threefold: to diversify its oil-dependent economy, bolster its geopolitical standing in a volatile region surrounded by powerful neighbors, and associate it in the global consciousness with glamor and success rather than being an autocratic monarchy presiding over well-documented human rights abuses. This phenomenon is often referred to as sportswashing.

Just as with Qatar's ownership of Paris Saint-Germain, its hosting of the 2022 World Cup and its ongoing pursuit of Manchester United, and just as with Saudi Arabia's purchase of Newcastle United and effective takeover of professional golf, the ultimate purpose isn't to promote and support elite sport itself; that's just a means to an end.

Those playing it, coaching it, watching it, reporting on it and celebrating it are ultimately being instrumentalized for ulterior motives, whether they like it or not.

Manchester City's head coach Pep Guardiola kisses the trophy after winning the Champions League
Pep Guardiola has won the Treble for the second time - with substantial financial backingImage: Francisco Seco/AP Photo/picture alliance

Allegations of financial irregularities

Manchester City also stands accused of breaking rules in order to achieve those goals. It has been charged by the Premier League of 115 counts of financial irregularities between 2009 and 2018.

It has already been fined twice by UEFA, once for breaching Financial Fair Play regulations and a second time for obstructing an investigation – the latter after the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled that a number of allegations of artificially inflating sponsorship revenue from Abu Dhabi-based companies had taken place too long ago to full under its jurisdiction.

Of course, none of this is the fault of Pep Guardiola, winning goalscorer Rodri, man-of-the-match John Stones, German international Ilkay Gündogan or Norwegian striking sensation Erling Haaland.

The travails of the likes of PSG, Abu Dhabi's regional rivals, and Manchester United, City's local rivals, in recent years are evidence that simply spending massive amounts of money isn't enough; it has to be spent professionally, too.

Nevertheless, even if City ends up being completely absolved of all accusations of financial wrongdoing, the fact remains that the recruitment, assembly and molding of a world-beating squad is a lot easier when backed by unlimited sovereign wealth, which provides the infrastructure to minimize the risk of failure and the financial cushion to mitigate it should it still occur — advantages City's rivals simply don't have.

Bayern fans hold banners during the Champions League quarterfinal, first leg, soccer match between Manchester City and Bayern Munich at the Etihad stadium
Bayern Munich fans criticized Manchester City's ownership model this seasonImage: Dave Thompson/AP Photo/picture alliance

English fans have no say – unlike in Germany

Many of those City supporters who packed out one end of the Atatürk stadium won't care; they'll feel they've deserved their moment as a reward for their loyalty over the years. And they're entitled to that.

They may also argue that, given the structural inequalities of European football, where the biggest and most successful clubs historically are continually granted the lion's share of the broadcast revenues and prize money, thus perpetuating a vicious circle and solidifying the gulf between the rich and the rest, how else could their club ever enter that exclusive group? And they'd have a point.

Ultimately, they may point out that they don't have a say in any of this anyway. This, at least in English football, is also the sad reality.

It was significant that, just two weeks before the Champions League final, German clubs voted against plans to secure a €2 billion investment in the Bundesliga — at least partly due to pressure exerted by supporters and members who, in adherence to the 50+1 ownership rule, retain a say in the running of their clubs.

According to the plans, the money was supposed to have helped German clubs — such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and RB Leipzig, who were all brushed aside by City on their road to Istanbul — compete in Europe.

But supporters feared that the price to pay for that would go beyond the financial — namely, 12.5% of future broadcast revenues to be paid out to a private equity investor — and actually constitute a de-facto loss of influence in their clubs, leading to potential sell-outs to investors or owners with ulterior motives.

The ultimate consequence of that was on show in the Atatürk Stadium on Saturday night where those Manchester City supporters, whether from Cheadle or Oldham, Gorton or Newton Heath, Turkey or Australia, celebrated a triumph which they are of course free to enjoy — but which is ultimately neither sporting nor theirs.

It was geopolitical, it was financial and it belonged to the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, attending his second ever game in his blue and white scarf.

Edited by: Mark Hallam