The Champions League final that Manchester City and Inter will play on Saturday at the Atatürk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul will face two European football powers backed by giant economic structures and based far from the Old Continent. Of course: the two contenders are not free of difficulties. The English club is being investigated again for alleged financial irregularities. The Italian institution coexists with millionaire debts and rumors of sale.
City, which historically lived in the shadow of Manchester United, experienced a drastic change in its destiny when it was acquired in September 2008 by the Abu Dhabi United Group (ADUG), an investment fund belonging to Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, current Vice President of the United Arab Emirates, and Minister of Presidential Affairs. member of the Supreme Petroleum Council, chairman of the Ministerial Council for Development and the Emirates Investment Authority, and media owner.
The purchase of City was the first step in a more ambitious plan by Emirati investors. From the ad-hoc creation of the City Football Group (CFG) corporation in hand in 2013, they began an expansion process that led them to be total or partial owners of 12 other clubs on four continents: the Spanish Girona, the Italian Palermo, the French Troyes, the Belgian Lommel SK, the Brazilian Bahia, the Bolivian Bolivar (through a sponsorship agreement), Uruguayan Montevideo City Torque, American New York City FC, Japanese Yokohama Marinos, Chinese Sichuan Jiuniu, Indian Mumbai City FC and Australian Melbourne FC.
Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan (centre) at Manchester City's stadium.
In addition, the CFG, whose parent company since 2021 is Newton Investment and Development LLC (also owned by Mansour bin Zayed) has football academies in Manchester, Girona, Melbourne, New York and Montevideo; several eSports teams, technical support groups, marketing companies and investments in educational projects and recreational 5-a-side football complexes in the United States.
However, the flagship of the project was always City, for which ambitious goals were set from day one. "It's simple: we want to finish in the top-four this season and make Manchester City the biggest team in the Premier League," proposed Sulaiman al Fahim, the visible face of ADUG during the purchase process, after closing negotiations with the club's then owner, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
The first goal was not met, as the team finished 10th in the 2008/09 season, the first under Emirati management. However, two years later he won the FA Cup and in 2012 he won the Premier League after 44 years of waiting. It was the beginning of a string of successes that has included five other titles in the Premier League and one more in the FA Cup, as well as six editions of the League Cup and three of the Community Shield.
Mansour bin Zayed Al-Nahyan with Sergio Kun Agüero.
In the four years that elapsed between its arrival and the obtaining of the first title in the Premier League, ADUG invested 1,000 million pounds in improvements in the facilities and, above all, in the acquisition of players such as Carlos Tevez, Sergio Agüero, the Brazilian Robinho, the Italian Mario Balotelli, the Ivorian Yaya Touré, the Spanish David Silva and the Frenchman Patrick Vieira.
They were joined in later years by other stars such as Raheem Sterling, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sané, Ilkay Gündogan and Erling Haaland. As if that were not enough, City hired in 2016 the most coveted coach on the planet, Josep Guardiola, with whom the team made the definitive leap in quality that will now try to crown with the obtaining of the always elusive Champions League. In this, the Catalan Ferran Soriano, CEO of CFG, CEO of City and former vice president of Barcelona between 2003 and 2008, played a fundamental role.
Ferran Soriano, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, Pep Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain. (Reuter)
The powerful injections of Emirati petrodollars caused the Manchester club to be singled out several times for alleged breaches of Financial Fair Play. Even in 2020 UEFA applied a two-year ban without being able to intervene in European competitions and a fine of 25 million pounds, but the English ended up evading the sporting punishment and seeing the economic sanction reduced to 9 million pounds thanks to a favorable ruling of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
In February of this year, the Premier League accused City of having committed between 2009 and 2018 more than a hundred breaches of its financial rules. The shortcomings include failure to submit financial reports linked to sponsorship income and concealment of payments to players and members of their coaching staff. For the moment, the governing body of the English competition did not apply a penalty, which could range from an economic sanction to expulsion from the league.
At the limit (or crossing borders) of legislation, City became in the last decade a sporting and economic powerhouse. According to the latest annual ranking of the most valuable football teams in the world, published in May last year by Forbes magazine and headed by Real Madrid (valued at 5,100 million dollars), the English club appears sixth, with a valuation of 4,250 million dollars and a year-on-year growth of 6%.
In that ranking, Inter appears 15th, with a valuation of 1,000 million and a growth of 35% in the last year. The Milanese club, the second most winning in its country (it has 17 titles in the local league, only surpassed by Juventus -34-), has not been left out of the process of foreignization that has occurred in recent decades in Europe in general and in Italy in particular: seven of the 20 participants of Serie A are in the hands of foreign investors.
In June 2016, Suning Commerce Group, China's largest electronics retailer,acquired 270.68% of Inter for €55 million. When that operation was completed, the remaining 31.45% of the shares were in the hands of Indonesian Erick Thohir, who had taken the reins of the club in 2013, while oil businessman Massimo Moratti, owner and president from 1995 to 2013, ceded the last portion that still belonged to him.
Erick Thohir and Zhang Jindong. (AP)
The key man in the purchase consummated in 2016 was Zhang Jindong, builder of the Suning Group emporium, which was born in 1996 from the opening in Nanjing of the first Suning Commerce store (today it has more than 700 establishments in different cities of China) and to which the investment fund Suning Culture Investment Management was progressively integrated. the real estate company Suning Real Estate and the mobile phone producer Nubia Technology, among other companies. Even in 2019 it invested 620 million euros to acquire all Carrefour stores on Chinese soil.
Two years after that operation, in October 2018, Zhang Kangyang (known as Steven and son of Zhang Jindong) assumed the presidency at just 26 years old and became the youngest boss in the history of Inter. One of his first decisions, and perhaps his greatest success, was the hiring as general director of Sport of Giuseppe Marotta, the man who since 2010 had built the multi-champion team of Juventus.
Since his arrival, Suning has invested nearly €800 million in the Inter project. In that period arrived top-level players such as Lautaro Martínez, Nicolò Barella, the Belgian Romelu Lukaku, the Danish Christian Eriksen, the Moroccan Achraf Hakimi and the Croatian Marcelo Brozovic. In the 2020/21 season, he took the Serie A title and thus broke the hegemony of Juve, who had won the previous nine championships. In the seven years of Suning management, the Nerazzurro also won two editions of the Coppa Italia and two of the Italian Super Cup (both in 2022 and 2023).
Javier Zanetti with Zhang Jindong. (
These sporting achievements were not enough to fully address the economic holes that the club suffered in recent years, especially as a result of the losses generated by the coronavirus pandemic. In September last year, the Board of Directors approved the financial statements for the 2021/22 financial year (later endorsed by the Shareholders' Meeting), which recorded losses of 140 million euros in that period.
In May 2021, Suning took out a $275 million loan from investment fund Oaktree Capital to address economic difficulties. This has become a sword of Damocles, since the agreement contemplates that if the Chinese firm does not cancel the credit (350 million between capital and interest) before May 20, 2024, Oaktree will stay with control of the club.
Although when the last balance sheet was approved, Suning pledged to continue investing in the project, rumors of a sale have been heard since then. Among those interested were the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), owner of the English Newcastle, and the Bahraini Investcorp. How much could that handrail cost? A reference is the 1,200 million euros that RedBird Capital paid in August for Milan. Although the total liabilities of 870 million will be a heavy slab for any operation.
Suning's overall situation doesn't help either. In July 2021, when it had a debt of around 6,600 million dollars, it had to cede 16.96% of its share package to an investment group headed by the Asset Management Committee of the State of Nanjing and the provincial government of Jiangsu, and also integrated by private companies such as Alibaba (it already owned 19.99% of the retail chain since 2015). smartphone maker Xiaomi and home appliance makers Haier and Midea. The operation reduced Zhang Jindong's stake to 17.62%, and he thus lost his controlling status in the group.