City aims for the world: How Abu Dhabi football group is plotting global domination

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Manchester City are the flavour of the month year. They have won almost everything in the past season and look set for a repeat or three. But talking to Brian Marwood, managing director of global football for City Football Group, gives you a sense that the footballing world - not just the Premier League, not just Europe, but beyond - needs to be very afraid. Because CFG are not satisfied with the Champions League -- they aim for global domination, through their network of clubs across the world.

Consider this: Melbourne have won the A-League Championship once and the Premiership thrice in the past three years. Yokohama won the J-League after a gap of 15 years in 2019 and since have won one more. New York City have won the MLS Cup. Mumbai won the Indian first division double in their first year after taking over the club (the ISL league shield and the ISL trophy) and won back the league shield last season with one of the most dominant displays an Indian league season has seen.

And they're just getting started.

Marwood joined CFG in 2009, less than a year after Manchester City was taken over by the Abu Dhabi United Group and almost immediately went about starting the process that would see Man City win the European Treble in 2023. "We had much work to do when we came in. When I say that, I don't want to be disrespectful in terms of what we came into. But [that] was the benchmark of the previous owners, which was just to survive in the Premier League, and maybe do well in a cup. And that wasn't the ambition [of CFG]."

"Change is not easy," he says. "Some people are happy to go on that journey, but others are very nervous, others worry and wonder how it's going to impact them. I'm a big believer in good people create good outcomes. And, and it was important that we got better expertise and people in certain areas. But it needed direction, a North Star."

For Marwood, that was identity. "When I joined, I felt that as a club, we didn't really have a DNA, we didn't have something that... when I closed my eyes and thought of Barcelona, I saw a style. When I closed my eyes and thought of Ajax, I saw the style. When I closed my eyes and thought of Manchester City, I didn't... we worked very hard at creating what we believed the style that we wanted to play within the club. And then that what that did that was allowed us to start identifying coaches, that would be really good exponents of that style."

The first such coach to be identified was Roberto Mancini, who was brought in mid-way through the '09-'10 season to replace Mark Hughes. Then came Manuel Pellegrini, and finally, Pep Guardiola, "the high priest of that style."

It's not all been smooth sailing, though. There have been several allegations raised on the behind-the-scenes processes employed to get there. In 2020, UEFA banned Man City from European competitions for breaching financial fair play regulations and fined them for failure to cooperate with their investigation. City went to the Court of Arbitration of Sport (CAS) and had the ban overturned on a technicality. In the middle of last season, meanwhile, the Premier League charged the club with 115 breaches of the Prem's financial rules over a nine-year period (2009-2018). With a legal battle on regarding those charges, the CFG refused to field any questions on them.

On the pitch, meanwhile, they have continued to do what they do. In their endeavour to create an identifying style, Marwood and the CFG have been remarkably successful. Think of the light blue of City, and you immediately see Guardiola's possession-obsessed players twirling around a football field, dominating, and controlling game-after-game. And that has extended to quite a few clubs under their umbrella - including the current ISL league shield holders, Mumbai City.

"It is a fundamental cornerstone of all of our clubs -- in terms of playing a City style," says Marwood. "When I watch videos of the Melbourne academy play, the second team in New York, or our team in Montevideo, I see that style and I'm very proud."

"Mumbai is no different. Des [Buckingham, manager of Mumbai City] came from our club in Melbourne... he's a big believer in that style. And he's followed on from where Sergio [Lobera] left; because it's important to us as a club. It's one of the non-negotiables."

If implementing it at one club took concentrated effort, doing it across four continents has taken a great deal more. "Obviously, the effectiveness of that style sometimes depends on the quality of players," he says. "Certain countries have [different] conditions that you have to work in, like a salary cap. So, you can't always get the best players to play in all the different positions to carry out that style. But the framework is something that is non-negotiable."

The more tangible elements - like the sky blue first team colours and the name 'City' are more open to change. In clubs like Mumbai, New York (which was built up from scratch), Montevideo and Melbourne, the relative short histories allowed for these changes to happen smoothly. At other clubs like Girona, Yokohama F. Marinos, CFG simply settled for uniformity in footballing philosophy.

And that's often come with great success across continents. Marwood takes great pride in these achievements, recounting them fondly even as he acknowledges the European treble as something "that would take some beating," but it's here that he emphasises that different cogs in the CFG machine are assessed differently.

"At a number of our clubs, the metric is to compete to win trophies," he says. "But for some of our other clubs like Lommel [in Belgium], for example, it's about developing talent. Obviously, we want to succeed, but success there is measured by young players that we put into that club and start them on a journey." Marwood gives the example of Vini Souza (Brazil), Koki Saito (Japan) and Manfred Ugalde (Costa Rica) who came to Lommel first to help them acclimatise to Europe and then enjoyed successful loan spells in LaLiga and the Dutch Eredivisie last season.

Indian players following a similar route would be "an ambition," he says. Mumbai City's Apuia spent a couple of months at Lommel, allowing him to experience football at that level ahead of the start of the ISL season last year, but it will be a while before any tangible impact is made. "[Football in India] is growing," he says. "That brings with it more players, more opportunities, better quality, and better conditions to play. And I think over time, we will see more and more Indian players come through. But it's a process and these things just don't happen overnight."

Marwood takes Mumbai's example when talking about cultural difference across countries, and continents -- the biggest challenge he feels the CFG global network faces. "The players are staying in a hotel, right. So that's not easy, because they don't have the families with them. When it was the short season, it wasn't so bad, now it's got longer. So, you're looking at the challenges of players being in the hotel, feeling a little bit isolated, trying to make sure that the mental health and mental well-being is good."

It's the small things, he says, that matter. From the wholesale change of 2009, it's the more minute tweaks to an already successful team (and team-behind-the-team) that Marwood is focusing on. "We can't become complacent... we have to maintain that energy and drive."