The City Football Group: A Family Affair

How do fans of Melbourne City, New York City FC and Girona feel about being part of the City Football Group? It’s been something of a dysfunctional family so far, as Stephen Tudor found out…

Imagine supporting a club all of your life when suddenly rumours begin to circulate about a takeover.

The prospective buyer is not a local businessman done good or a fabulously wealthy individual from afar, but essentially another football club, from another continent. Stranger still, their intention is to incorporate your club into a network of others that fall under the umbrella of a holding company based in England. They plan to change the shirt colours from red and white stripes to light blue, dramatically redesign the badge, and, in this first instance, change the name from Melbourne Heart to Melbourne City. Both literally and figuratively, you may feel the heart has been ripped from your club.

In January 2014, City Football Group’s takeover was concluded for AU$12 million. From being a proud independent institution, Melbourne are now – in the eyes of naysayers and rivals at least – a feeder club, beholden to a master some 10,000 miles away. They are reportedly instructed to play the same way as their parent club, while in the broadest sense they are a staging post in an ever increasing global brand, valued largely for the commercial and scouting opportunities they offer.

There are significant upsides to the partnership, of course, with some supporters enthusiastically embracing the development. Aligned with City Football Group’s ownership of Manchester City, Melbourne City are now, by some distance, the richest club in the Australian A-League.

Following increased investment the team won the FFA Cup in 2016, while a AU$15 million state-of-the-art training facility has been built. In the past three years David Villa has briefly worn the Melbourne City shirt and Tim Cahill does so presently. But the loss of star player Aaron Mooy, who moved to Manchester City before joining Huddersfield Town, underlines the peculiar nature of this relationship.

For some it is a pact with the devil – the ultimate hypothetical for any supporter of a team that is struggling or just getting by. How much control and identity would you be willing to sacrifice in exchange for being financially secure and competing for silverware? Melbourne fan Glenn Mercieca has witnessed first-hand the entrenched division that CFG’s takeover has caused.

“Some embraced City from day one and are fully behind it, while others have stopped following the club entirely,” he explains. “Many believe the club has no identity now and is just a play thing for City Football Group. On a personal note, I think it’s great because Melbourne Heart may not be around at all without CFG taking over.”

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As far as Premier League football is concerned Glenn is very much a Liverpool fan – “I have zero connection to Manchester City” – but he has found it possible to differentiate between City and the City Football Group, and appreciates the work of CFG in not only improving the fortunes of Melbourne City but raising the bar for Australian soccer.

“The fact that they have taken a club who had possibly the worst facilities in the country to having the best amongst any code of football is amazing.

“The desire to grow and promote youth and women’s football in this country can only benefit the national team, not straight away but in the future, while having quality academies can only improve the level of footballers in Australia.”

Unsurprisingly, few Australian soccer fans beyond Melbourne’s 30,000-capacity AAMI Park share Glenn’s sentiments.

“Opposition fans have been negative,” he adds. “We are sell-outs. We are plastic. But that’s fine. It may be born out of envy because the reality of what City is building in Melbourne is starting to dawn on people.”

Melbourne City are not the only club CFG have added to their portfolio. There is a 20% stake in Japanese J-League side Yokohama F Marinos, who are also part-owned by the Nissan Motor Company, while the recent acquisition of Uruguayan second division club Atletico Torque, along with a collaboration agreement with Atletico Venezuela, expanded the group’s territory grab to South America.

In the US, New York City FC were established in 2013 and became Major League Soccer’s twentieth franchise at the direct invitation of the league’s Commissioner Don Garber.

Logic suggests that a natural affinity should exist between New York City’s nascent fan base, the City Football Group and, by extension, Manchester City. After all, there was no threat of appropriated history with this start-up acquisition.

Yet surprisingly, of all the clubs in the global network, it is here where resentment thrives. In part this can be attributed to the ‘pigeons’ (a nickname given to fans at the Yankee Stadium) wishing to disassociate themselves from their cousin across the pond to establish an independent identity. The frustration at the ongoing failure to secure a purpose-built stadium is another factor, but it seems much of the discord stems from a sorry episode known Stateside as ‘Lampardgate’.

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In the summer of 2014 it was announced that Frank Lampard had signed a two-year contract with NYCFC ahead of their inaugural season. The Chelsea legend’s anticipated arrival garnered plenty of publicity and was key in selling season tickets and merchandise ahead of the new campaign.

But then it was revealed that the 36-year-old would join Manchester City first on a short-term deal, an arrangement that was eventually extended to a full year. At the precise moment when the City Football Group were talking up the importance of their new endeavour this unfortunate ‘miscommunication’ confirmed how far down New York was in their priorities – or at least that was the perception from aggrieved supporters.

The disenchantment persists three years on, with New Yorker Tom French making an unfavourable comparison between his club and the most recent franchise in MLS.

“The Lampard debacle certainly soured my view of Manchester City, specifically asking him to stay on in England for six more months as a rarely used substitute, instead of coming and starting the season with us,” he says.

“Many took the opinion that the good would outweigh the bad, and that access to CFG’s resources would make up for that one gaffe. I’m not sure that has proven true as of yet.

“We’ve seen Atlanta come into MLS and hit all their marks with acquisitions, stadium, and fan support in Year One. We still have no news of a stadium, and a semi-retired Andrea Pirlo taking up a valuable DP (designated player) spot on the bench.”  

Chris Jee is another Bronx Blue who has already grown disillusioned. “There is definitely a set of people who will never forgive CFG for what happened with Lampard, the lack of a stadium, and their sometimes tone-deaf marketing. Overall, I guess I’d say that people are a little suspicious and waiting for CFG to reveal a consistent, unequivocal character and presence.” 

Looking at the broader picture, Chris is pragmatic about his club’s place in the CFG food chain. He jokes about the prospect of Sergio Aguero or Vincent Kompany hooking up with NYCFC before retirement.

“They’re trying to create a mental coupling between all the teams and probably pretty successfully,” he continues. “Actually, it’s more like Manchester City at the hub, with NYCFC and others as satellite clubs right now. The more that players cross over, the more it will seem like a family.”

Tom is more uncertain about that notion of the CFG family. “It’s unclear what that means.  Are the teams bought by CFG for the purpose of feeding Manchester City? Does CFG want to have winning teams all over the globe? The plan isn’t clear to us.”

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If Anglo-American relations are somewhat strained for the time being, the mood appears to be far more welcoming at Girona following CFG’s agreement in August to purchase a 44.3% share in the promoted La Liga outfit. With Girona Football Group acquiring an identical holding, fronted by Pep Guardiola’s brother Pere, Girona have become the sixth club to be absorbed into an ever-widening empire.

The reaction so far has been largely positive, with each fan base adopting the other as their second team. Speaking to the supporters who run the Twitter account @GironaUK, the enthusiasm for a mutually beneficial relationship is clear: “To be attributed in any way to one of fastest growing, financially strong powerhouses in world football can only be a good thing for the long-term prosperity of any club. And with Girona’s objective to cement their position in the Spanish top flight, the link could prove prosperous for both.”

The tiny Catalan club upset the odds last season by reaching the rarefied heights of La Liga for the first time in their 87-year history, and it seems their purpose in the City Football Group has already been outlined. With Guardiola espousing the need to have B teams in competitive leagues, he now has the means to loan out his finest young talent to develop their skills against the best in Spain. Indeed, the ink had barely dried before five teenagers were seconded to Girona for the 2017/18 campaign.

The suggestion that a side hailing from this proud region could be deemed a subsidiary club is naturally insulting, so it’s fortuitous that the fans at @GironaUK disagree with the premise. Instead they only see the positives.

“Who wouldn’t want to see the likes of Aleix Garcia and Pablo Maffeo return to their home country and make a significant contribution to Girona’s chances of survival this season? Similarly, in Douglas Luiz, Marlos Moreno and Larry Kayode, Girona have been blessed with a wonderful opportunity to make use of three of the most highly-rated players in their age groups.

“In the short term, it may well mean that Girona are largely seen as a feeder club, but in the long term the exposure to nurturing and giving first-team opportunities to raw talent could stand the club in good stead.”

There may be storm clouds on the horizon. In the unlikely event that Girona secure European football at some stage in the future, a conflict of interest will no doubt be claimed. There is precedent for this, however, with UEFA permitting both RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg to play in the Champions League this season.

In this instance, though, CFG appear to have chosen well with their acquisition. Learnings have surely been taken from previous ventures, with Girona immediately seeing the benefit of the relationship. Only time will tell whether that remains the case, but for now harmony reins.

“In many ways Girona can be closely linked through its values and ethos to City. For that reason we feel that there is a strong connection between both clubs.”

The City Football Group: A Family Affair
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