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Unveiling the Virgin of Asia

Posted By Brian Phillips On September 8, 2008 @ 11:26 am In Uncategorized | 5 Comments

The salient feature of the Abu Dhabi royal family’s takeover of Manchester City to this point has been its combination of revolutionary terror and sincere incompetence. On the one hand, the thought of yet another sudden exponential expansion of the role of money in football—Abramovich turned into a black-and-white TV on the day that color came out—is genuinely unsettling. On the other hand, watching Dr. Sulaiman Al-Fahim issue public declarations is like watching a professional wrestler go skydiving: all the bravado in the world, but completely useless in this context. You get the feeling, every time he promises to force the world of football to its knees by spending £100 million on a lunch salad, that he’s playing Robespierre in some slapstick reenactment of the Reign of Terror—it’s more funny than anything, even though you can’t shake a vague suspicion that the guillotine might be real.

Today, clouds of crazed mathematical symbols were added to both sides of this equation by the news that the Abu Dhabi contingent is hoping to expand the Man City brand with, among other things, “official club scooters,” a suite of energy drinks, and a proprietary line of Mini Coopers. The plan is laid out in a blueprint called “A New Model for Partnership in Football,” which was leaked to the press this morning and which promises to transform the club, marvelously, into “the Virgin of Asia and the world.” I know it’s talking about the corporation, but seriously, can Micah Richards go back at this point?

The blueprint was written by a former Nike executive named Garry Cook, who—crucially—dreamed it up while working at the club under Thaksin Shinawatra. This is crucial because it means that the blueprint pre-dated the acquisition and, at least according to the Guardian, “was influential in convincing the Abu Dhabi royal family to buy the club.” In other words, one of the things that attracted the Dhabians to Man City was that the previous ownership convinced them of the potential to transform the club into a global brand.

Since the news of the takeover broke, two things about the Abu Dhabi group have been endlessly repeated: first, that “all they care about is building a winning team,” and second, that they have unlimited money with which to do so. But if either of those things was true, why would they care about selling Mini Coopers?  This morning’s news, that is, suggests what we always should have recognized, which is that there is an upper limit on the amount of money the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority will be willing to pour into this project, and that some degree of return on the investment will be expected before Sheikh Mansour, or whomever Sulaiman Al-Fahim answers to, will make a long-term commitment to it.

That is to say: while it may be alarming that Dhabians are envisioning a future of sky-blue scooters thronging the motorways of China, the fact that they’re obsessing over the fabled lost city of gold—sorry, the “untapped Asian market”—in the first place suggests that they aren’t as omnipotent as the press is making out. Less charitably, it suggests that they don’t really know what they’re doing, a possibility that isn’t exactly undermined by the fact that for all their grandiose promises, the only thing they’ve accomplished so far is to spend more than they should have on Robinho. Apart from saying big numbers into a camera, that is, they haven’t shown any sign of knowing how to put together a winning football team, and who’s going to buy their energy drink if they can’t even make the Champions League?

There’s a point here about how successful clubs realize that everything begins on the pitch, and that putting together a winning side depends on more than arching your eyebrow and adding an extra zero—that there’s such a thing as expertise, in other words, and it may be the only undervalued commodity in this new world of sentient checkbooks.

Someone should make that point. But at the moment, I’m more curious to hear what you think about all this. Are we watching the apocalypse, or just a sitcom about to go to commercial? Al-Fahim has promised that Man City will finish in the top four this year, and they won’t. What happens then?


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