When Manchester City travelled to Barcelona to compete in the Joan Gamper Trophy on 19 August 2009, nobody could have known that a new fox had been let loose in the proverbial hen house. Whilst everybody’s focus was on the pitch, it was off the pitch where the real action was taking place.
In attendance in an executive box overlooking the pitch at the Camp Nou were several high-ranking officials from Abu Dhabi’s royal family including Sheikh Mansour’s brother. They were there not just to watch their relatively new pet project pitted against the European champions, but also to survey who and what it took to build such an enduring footballing dynasty as the one which was taking shape in Barcelona.
The men from the Middle East came away not just impressed, but some would say obsessed, with what Barcelona had become. From top to bottom the club represented a template that they could follow and one that perfectly coupled competitive success with a level of class and dignity that was almost a throwback to another era.
Key figures were easy to spot. Whilst Joan Laporta was the charismatic president, effortlessly moving from table to table pressing the flesh, flashing his perfect politician’s smile, and basking in the glory of the house he had built, it was two other men who immediately caught the eye of the Abu Dhabi contingent.
Txiki Begiristain, the diminutive former Barcelona winger cum modern day Director of Football, and Ferran Soriano who held the title Economic Vice President of Barcelona FC. It was the intelligence of these two men which had underpinned all of Laporta’s success and it didn’t take Abu Dhabi long to figure out why. Txiki was the football man. Ferran the businessman.
Together they had taken a club on the brink of financial ruin and redeveloped it into the standard bearer for European football. It was duly noted that whilst revenues at Barcelona soared, as Europe was enchanted by the football they played, a remarkable thing had happened off the field. The overall cost of running the club had actually gone down. Ferran and Txiki had pulled off one of the greatest magic tricks seen in modern football.
So back in Manchester and in Abu Dhabi a plan was hatched. Contact was established with Txiki and Ferran and a pitch was made. Abu Dhabi wanted to build an enduring footballing dynasty in Manchester and they wanted it to reflect all those things they had felt and witnessed in Barcelona that night. It took time, and it wasn’t until 2012 that Txiki and Ferran were appointed as Director of Football and CEO respectively of Manchester City.
But that was only the first step. There was a footballing imperative at the root of what Abu Dhabi wanted. That imperative was Barcelona’s manager that night, Pep Guardiola. The man with the intense stare and the jack in a box touchline quality which had won the European Cup a few months earlier playing a version of football which had its roots in Rinus Michels total football principles, but had been thoroughly updated for the modern Barcelona. A self-avowed Cruyff acolyte, Pep’s team weren’t just better than everyone else, they were so much better than everyone else that a new chapter in football’s glorious history was being written. The men from Manchester City were smitten.
Fast-forward six years to today and City as a club has been totally redeveloped and rebuilt. The principles it espouses are those that Cruyff took to Barcelona of which Pep revolutionised for the new millennium. From the youth academy to the first team and everywhere in between, the parallels with Barcelona, the nods to its history and its ‘més que un club’ mantra are everywhere around the Etihad. Manchester City stands on the cusp of becoming the most powerful club in England.
Some would say, it is perhaps the perfect time for the final piece of Abu Dhabi’s ‘Barca Project’ to be put in place. The worst kept secret in world football is almost out of the bag and it’s a matter of when, not if it is confirmed that Pep Guardiola will succeed Manuel Pellegrini as the Manchester City manager in the summer of 2016. It’s been a plan a long time in the making and like everything else Abu Dhabi do, it has been executed with intelligence and patience.
What should frighten the life out of the rest of the footballing world is that since 2009 Abu Dhabi has been a step ahead of their counterparts across European football. Back then the world of football coveted not just Guardiola, but Txiki and Ferran also. Nobody but those who understood the scope of Abu Dhabi’s vision could’ve known it was a fait accompli from the moment Manchester City arrived at the Camp Nou that night. Nobody could’ve known that all three men would be reunited one day in England to begin building a new footballing dynasty.