Despite Recent Success, Manchester City Is Still Struggling With its Reputation

The story of Manchester City and the Sheikh Mansour takeover is bound up in irony. City was a club renowned for its haplessness. It did ridiculous things. It found a hilarious variety of ways of failing. It won the league for the first time in 1937 and was relegated the following year as the highest scorers in the division. It was relegated in 1996 after its midfielder Steve Lomas took the ball to the corner to protect a draw, mistakenly believing that would be enough to keep City up. City’s fans reveled in the ineptitude of their club. It’s hard to imagine a less plausible candidate to become a remorseless winning machine. But that is what City now is: the Community Shield it collected on Sunday was its seventh trophy since the appointment of Pep Guardiola in 2015.

Even when City won the league for the first time under Mansour’s ownership, in 2012, it did so by flirting with shambolic incompetence, squandering a convincing position. Coming back, then very nearly losing at home to QPR before Edin Dzeko and Sergio Aguero scored in injury-time. But the better City has become—gathering 100 points then 98 in the past two seasons—the more problematic the club and its ownership have seemed.

Mansour invested in City in 2008 with the fairly obvious intention of improving the image of Abu Dhabi, where he is deputy prime minister and of whose royal family he is a member. For a long time, that went largely unremarked upon. English football was used to extraordinarily wealthy owners and this didn’t seem hugely different.

Except it is. City acts with the power of the state. It is being investigated for breaches of Financial Fair Play regulations, to which its response, as revealed by emails released by Wikileaks, has been to go on the legal offensive, approaching fleets of high-class lawyers. When City beat Watford 6-0 in the FA Cup final last May, the reaction was less to praise the extraordinary quality of its play than to lament the fact that a mid-table club could be quite so outclassed. Attention turned to the Abu Dhabi state, to its human rights record and its involvement in the war in Yemen.

City fans are due significant sympathy. This is not the club many of them will have grown up supporting. They would, presumably, like to enjoy their victories without worrying that each one is a propaganda success for a faraway government of questionable moral status. Their dilemma is an awkward one: to one extent can they continue to support their team while questioning its ownership? Many have chosen aggression, attacking those who raise awkward ethical doubts, indulging in whataboutery and seeing vast conspiracies against their club.

There is an understandable tendency for sport to ignore political implications. Most fans and journalists would rather appreciate the beauty of City’s football—which is, after all, what they know about—than tease out the implications of the policies of a state of which they have limited experience. Weirdly, it was Guardiola who broke down that barrier by wearing a ribbon in support of Catalan independence activists detained without charge in Spain. If he wanted to draw attention to their plight, wasn’t it hypocritical to refuse to discuss those in a similar position in Abu Dhabi?

And yet the oddest aspect of the whole affair is that if City had only been a bit less successful, if it hadn’t created this extraordinary side that has set the two highest points tallies in history, the provenance of its wealth (which hasn’t even been splashed that extravagantly: its record signing is still less than three made by United) wouldn’t have become such an issue.

Yet by investing almost too well, by creating an unusually dominant side, City is in danger of achieving the opposite of what Mansour’s investment intended. Far from promoting Abu Dhabi reputation, City has brought increased scrutiny. The case of Matthew Hedges, the British academic arrested on espionage charges in Abu Dhabi last year who last week filed a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, gained far greater attention in the U.K. than it might otherwise have done precisely because a number of City fans took to social media to argue in favor of the emirate’s legal system.

City is struggling with perception, and not just in the U.K. The Chinese news agency Xinhua concluded its coverage of City’s preseason tour with an extraordinarily long and detailed complaint about the way City had behaved, supposedly shunning fans and media.

Perhaps that doesn’t matter unduly to the majority of fans, who would rather focus on the winning than on a failure to charm the Chinese market. But it does matter to City’s board and owners. Image is the whole reason they’re in the game. Winning on the pitch isn’t enough anymore, it might even, paradoxically, count against them. This season, City has to start winning the PR war again.

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