The City Football Group, one of the many business endeavors overseen by Emirati Royalty, has clear ambitions – own a marquee team on every continent, and utilize football’s universal appeal as a bridge between economies and cultures.
The first acquisition and crown jewel of CFG’s portfolio was none other than Manchester City, with ownership being transferred from the former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra to the Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008.
Subsequent acquisitions of Melbourne City FC (Australia), New York City FC (United States) and Montevideo Torque (Uruguay) were major strides towards expanding their global presence – choosing clubs with an appeal that went beyond sport and were more part of a lifestyle.
Melbourne consistently ranks among cities with the highest quality of life in the world, New York City embodies everything that the American Dream stands for, and Montevideo is the beating heart of a country that sees football not as a sport, but a religion.
With minor stakes in Spain’s Girona FC alongside Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere, Chinese Second-Division side Sichuan Juiniu FC, and Japanese JI League giants Yokohama F Marinos, it appears that CFG were hitting parts of the world where sports and big business go hand in hand.
The one glaring omission was a presence in India, which was finally addressed in late 2019 with the purchase of a 65% stake in Ranbir Kapoor’s Mumbai City FC. The number of clubs on the roster increased to nine in May 2020, with the addition of second-division Belgian side Lommel SK.
Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day
When viewed alongside the relative stature of the other clubs on the CFG roster, this new partnership shows plenty of promise. As a city, Mumbai’s positioning as the financial capital of a country whose economy is destined to be a global front-runner is a perfect setting.
However, while the coming years bring plenty of reason for optimism, it is key that even the staunchest fans of The Islanders reign in their short-term expectations. The franchise nature of the ISL makes it competitive, with critics of the format arguing that it comes at the expense of long-term development of the sport.
Nevertheless, Mumbai City FC has catching up to do across various facets. Success often looks like it happens overnight, but in truth it is the culmination of years of personnel, network and brand development that truly brings rewards. If the stars align, an odd league title may find its way to the trophy cabinet. Dynasties may never take shape even after years of planning and outstanding execution.
While a winning formula is by no means universal, CFG’s success with Manchester City can bode well for the future. It required a complete rebuild and an expensive learning curve, but the rise of the blue side of Manchester could indicate that, one day, Mumbai can be the home of a football team to match its national status as the City of Dreams.
The Manchester City Journey
The Thaksin Era brought a series of lavish expenses on players who few would consider as being among the global elite, yet the finances involved in these deals were astronomical. While some of the more elaborate signings like Real Madrid’s Robinho and CSKA Moscow’s Jo failed to impress, it was the relative unknowns of that era such as Pablo Zabaleta and Vincent Kompany who ended up becoming club legends. A revolving door of playing staff including future Chennaiyin favourite Elano all played a part in an expensive, exciting, yet ultimately failed experiment.
The change in ownership did bring about an eventual uptick in fortunes, but this journey was long and littered with mismanaged short-term expenditure. The arrival of former Barcelona directors Ferran Soriano and later Txiki Begiristain signaled a change of philosophy that would sweep through the club, from the boardroom to the touchline. The two Catalans oversaw FC Barcelona’s recent re-emergence among European elite and were better versed than most concerning the mentality shift that is required to challenge at the top.
Continuing spending for playing personnel along with a renewed focus on improving facilities, youth programs and a global scouting network, foundations for their super project were being laid. All that remained on this list of desires was a commander-in-chief with a reputation to match the CFG’s unbridled ambition. While there would have been a list of potential targets, one name stood a bald head and shoulders above the rest.
Following up on his unprecedented treble success at Barcelona with a stint at Bayern Munich, with his tenure unanimously believed to be a catalyst behind Germany’s World Cup 2014 success, a certain Pep Guardiola was ready for his next challenge. It was a charm offensive years in the making, and with an elite manager finally in place, the club could dare to dream about sparring at the summit of the global game.
Maintaining dominance at the helm of the feeding frenzy that is the English game is a challenge unlike any other in football. Manchester City and CFG seemed to have found their own formula for success, even though the path to the top was a polar opposite to what was planned with the acquisitions of Begiristain, Soriano and Pep. Gone were the dreams of a home-grown squad reigning supreme, with undoubtedly talented prospects like Jadon Sancho and Brahim Diaz leaving for pastures new on the search for a structured path to the first team. The much-hyped Phil Foden is the new talk of the town, but for all his talent there is still an inherent lack of trust in the club’s youth. Huge expenditure on playing staff is still very much the norm at Manchester City.
It is not realistic to think that Mumbai City will be able to spend like their counterparts in Manchester. Thanks to Financial Fair Play, we now live in an era where sustainability is at the forefront of sports management. Add our current Covid-19 epidemic into the equation, and it would appear that eye-watering valuations of football’s elite could be facing a sharp downward price correction. Money will not be thrown at Mumbai City’s problems until miraculously fixed. However, lessons learned from other teams that make up the CFG network will most definitely be applicable in India.
A Tale of Two Countries
While a promising start to the 2019-20 ISL season ended with failure to make the playoffs, the growth that Mumbai City FC can make on the field pales in comparison to the challenges that football as a sport faces off the field.
Cricket’s stranglehold over the hearts, minds and wallets of India’s population presents an eerily similar situation to what’s being faced by another member of the CFG portfolio, New York City FC. Association football has pockets of feverish support in both countries, but the hard truth is that Mumbai, like NYC, is not one of them. Of course a home match against high-profile opposition will pull capacity crowds, but attendances for the bread & butter matches that make up the season will struggle to match its intensity.
People might think that the Beckham influence at LA Galaxy was the inflection point that made the world notice the MLS, and while it is impossible to ignore the effect that the presence of a global superstar can have on a nation, I do believe that it takes away from sweat that has been put in behind the scenes across the United States.
Heavy investment in grassroots soccer for both men and women has truly elevated the game away from its perceptions as one for children, or those with a flair for the dramatic. The rise and eventual export of stars like Bryan McBride, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and now Christian Pulisic, alongside the juggernaut that is the US Women’s National Team are a testament to countless hours spent in training across the nation.
Contrary to India, Coach Igor Stimac’s desire to reduce the amount of foreigners in Indian leagues, the effects of protectionist selection policies on the team rosters in the United States is debatable. While being complicated with player designations and salary caps, the MLS is very much like what we have in India – a league made up of local players, with a few superstars with salaries several times their native teammates.
The fact of the matter is that the best prospects on the USMNT selection pool are all plying their trade abroad, having been identified when they were schoolboys. Talent needs opportunities to get noticed. School, district and national-level competitions simply are not enough, the presence of football must extend beyond simple sporting circles if an Indian talent pool is to be developed. Sustained effort, investment, and a whole lot of learning from mistakes is what will bring results on the national stage.
While the entry of CFG into the ISL may do little to affect the macro reality of Indian football, I believe Mumbai City FC has the perfect rudder pointing towards achievable results within their own sphere of involvement. This is again where India and the United States share common ground, because teams like LA Galaxy, and now Beckham’s Inter Miami, have become standard bearers for the league. They are clubs that capture the public’s imagination, irrespective of football’s stature in the country.
Attention on the ISL is growing every year. While our league is still seen by many cynics around the world as one where players who are past their best can enjoy a final pay day, the MLS has had this tag as well. The last decade has shown clear steps towards shaking this association, and we now know that it’s possible to grow past this perception. The triumphant return of United States international Clint Dempsey to the Seattle Sounders was heralded as a turning point.
In the seasons since, the MLS has attracted players who were very much capable of rubbing shoulders with the best in the world, with Wayne Rooney and Jermaine Defoe, to name a few, returning to Europe after stints across the pond. I dream of the day that a hard-fought victory against another ISL side echoes the dizzying emotional highs one can experience on the streets after El Clasico or a Manchester Derby. I honestly believe that the foundations are in place for that to one day be the case. The rivalry between teams from Vancouver, Seattle and Portland are trailblazers for the United States, and this fervent support is slowly but surely spreading across the nation.
Like with the MLS, what we need is time to develop our own identity within the global game, both as a country and as a league. Tethering the ISL and I-League into a first and second division is a fantastic step in the right direction. Partnerships with global networks do plenty to attract eyeballs, but that always has to be backed up with the spreading of knowledge and making incremental yet constant improvements.
Growing a club entails much more than hiring more qualified coaches and playing staff, but it involves structural change. This is about much more than an assortment of 11 people kicking a ball around on the field, but the collection of people and businesses that make the community tick. Emotional connections to a club are formed by human relationships and experiences that we can share through the uniting force that is football. Football thrives in booming economies, and football clubs grow as the country goes. It is impossible to disconnect the two, and once this pandemic is behind us, India’s growth will, hopefully sooner rather than later, be back on the fast track.
All Eyes on a Blue Future
The youngest among us will be the ones singing club anthems from the terraces in a decade. People going to matches today could be the business owners of tomorrow. Local teams will be made up of friends, family and neighbours. The moments of joy, heartbreak and raw emotion that are to come in the ISL are being planted as seeds right now. Future generations would have never experienced a world without India’s representation among the elite of Asian football, and that fills me with an immense amount of joy. The next few months and years will be pivotal, but if all goes to plan, the future could well be a Mumbai City Blue.