Lommel is a small city in northeast Belgium, known for sand mining to the extent that it is known at all. The football team there, Lommel S.K., was formed in 2003. Previous incarnations date to 1927. In all that time, it has never played in Belgium's first tier.
Until 2020, when the club was acquired by the Manchester-based City Football Group, there was no reason for anyone outside Belgium to be aware of Lommel S.K.'s existence. Even today, as part of the most valuable conglomeration of football assets in the world, only one of its players is estimated to be worth more than $500,000. But Lommel's advantages over its competitors are more subtle than the size of its transfer budget.
One June morning, Lommel's performance director, James McCarron, joins a videoconference call to discuss summer recruitment. Brian Marwood, the group's managing director of global football, leads it from a conference room in the City Football Academy on the Etihad campus. On the call are Gavin Fleig, City Football Group's director of talent management; Gary Worthington, who has worked for Manchester City's player recruitment team for more than a decade; and Joshua Leunissen, a Netherlands-based scout. All three might have contributed to a similar call with Txiki Begiristain, Manchester City's sporting director. Or with David Lee of NYCFC. Or executives from any of the other eight clubs in which the City group has an ownership stake.
The first piece of business is a reserve goalkeeper. Worthington has just returned from Dublin, where he watched a talented Montenegrin play for his country's Under-21s. The player already has been vetted by the group's analytics team, which confirms that he is comfortable with the ball at his feet, a necessary skill at a CFG club. After hearing Worthington's positive assessment, Marwood asks McCarron to "finish the transaction."
- O'Hanlon: Will Haaland smash goals records this year? (E+)
Next they discuss a Congolese-born Belgian wing-back playing in Italy's Serie B. Signing him would give Lommel a home-grown player toward the league's quota. It also would provide competition for Caio Roque, Lommel's starting left-back. If Roque is shifted to a more competitive situation in January, his replacement will already be at the club. But before making a move, Marwood wants McCarron to ask Lommel's coaches whether the presence of a competing wing-back will motivate Roque or destabilize him. "We like Roque a lot," Marwood stresses.
At dinner in Manchester the previous night, NYCFC's Lee had told Marwood that an Ecuadorian defender, who has an inexpensive release clause at a club in his home country, might have the ability to play in MLS. His name comes up on the call. Marwood tells the group that Lommel "could be a good landing spot for him, in terms of development," but there's a complication. The group's South American scouts, who are headquartered at CFG's Montevideo City club, report that the defender has been living at an academy in Guayaquil in his early teens. Relocating to Lommel would be a jarring cultural shift. Before they make a move, Fleig suggests, a scout should assess his readiness to be on his own.
A recruitment meeting on the scale of this one would be unlikely to happen inside even Belgium's biggest clubs, Anderlecht, Standard Liege or Club Brugge. But like all of City Football Group's holdings, Lommel is run less like a football club than a branch office of a major corporation.
"There is no way that a team like Lommel would have a fraction of the access that it has right now to a global network of data, from Melbourne to Montevideo to Italy," says Khaldoon Al Mubarak. The chief executive of one of the world's largest investment companies, Al Mubarak has served as chairman of Manchester City's board of directors since 2008. "The value is in the data," he says. "The value is in the system that puts it all together and makes it useful to everybody."
The meeting ends. Marwood looks at his phone. He's due shortly in a conference room downstairs, where he'll meet the new director of Mumbai City, CFG's team in India. Later, he'll huddle with Begiristain and Pep Guardiola to discuss summer transfer targets for Manchester City. "Building clubs, developing broken or undernourished clubs, players, coaches, sporting directors, it all gives me a buzz," he says. "It doesn't matter if it's Manchester City or Mumbai. The budgets are different, but the principles are the same."
That philosophy has led to unparalleled success. So far, CFG remains an outlier. But it's hard not to wonder what will happen if that success becomes a blueprint for similar groups. Is football ready for a business model in which players are deployed like middle managers across a vast conglomerate?
And if that does becomes the industry standard, will anyone else be able to compete?
City Football Group owns all or part of 11 clubs worldwide. It controls the contracts of more football players than any other entity. Other investors and investment groups have multiple clubs, but none operates at a similar scale and none has accomplished nearly as much.
Since 2013, when CFG was formed, its teams have won leagues in six countries. In 2022 alone, those included the Premier League, MLS, Australia's A-League, and India's Super League. Manchester City, the flagship, still doesn't own a Champions League title. But it has everything else, including a domestic treble in 2019.
Unlike Red Bull, which has put versions of its energy drink logo on football clubs in Leipzig, Salzburg, New York and beyond, CFG is a holding company, not a consumer brand. "It does not exist from a consumer perspective," says Ferran Soriano, its chief executive.
Instead, the link between its clubs is subtle. It includes a light-blue color scheme and similar crests, but only at clubs that had little or no history when they were acquired, such as New York, Melbourne and Mumbai. When City adds a team that has a strong identity, its branding is retained. "What we hope is that the fans understand that it will have City inside," he says, "the way you have Intel inside your computer."
Most intriguingly, CFG's teams have a consistent way of playing, one that has come to be associated with Guardiola's Manchester City: constant pressure on the ball, short passes, building from the back.
"Style of football, that's non-negotiable," Marwood says. "Now granted, to deliver that in Manchester because you've got Kevin de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva is something different than a player from India who may be rough around the edges, or a kid coming out of college in the U.S., but the style is our identity."
When he visits one of the group's properties, Marwood watches not only the first team, but the youth academy teams and the women's team. "The one thing I will always jump on is the wrong style of football," he says.
Criticism of City Football Group naturally concerns the enormous sums of money the company has spent. The purchase of Manchester City cost about $250 million, including existing debt, but the total investment exceeds $2 billion. Javier Tebas, the chief executive of La Liga, criticized CFG as "money destroyers" who send player salaries and transfer fees spiraling upward. He referred to Manchester City's ability to get inflated sponsorship sums from Emirati companies, which was at the heart of the Financial Fair Play complaint, as financial doping.
UEFA felt the same. Its sanctions against Manchester City, including a two-year Champions League ban, were overturned in 2020 by the Court of Arbitration for Sport because the five-year statute of limitations had expired. (The club was still forced to pay a €10m fine for failing to cooperate with the investigation.)
Much less is said about CFG's ongoing corporatization of world football, though the number of stand-alone clubs is dwindling by the month. As of 2017, 26 top-flight European clubs were owned by entities that also had investments in other clubs. By 2020, even with the pandemic raging, that number had more than doubled. In Belgium alone, one of the top per capita talent-producers in Europe, at least a dozen clubs have ties to others in Europe or the United States. Today, more than 100 clubs worldwide are part of some sort of group or partnership. (Todd Boehly, Chelsea's new CEO, even mentioned a multi-club vision as something he is considering.)
"It is ripping the soul out of what we're all about a little bit," says Peter Moore, the former Liverpool CEO. Yet for all that, what City and the others are doing is not new. The template has been there for decades, hidden in plain sight.
"We have not invented this," says Soriano. "This is how many industries work. The magic is to do it in an industry that has never done it before."
The origin of City Football Group begins with Soriano. In 2005, while serving as the vice-chairman and CEO at F.C. Barcelona, he successfully pitched MLS executives, including commissioner Don Garber, on the idea of a second team in New York.
New York F.C. would be owned by Barcelona. It would have the same azulgrana color scheme as the parent club. For Barcelona, it would serve as an affiliate where emerging talents could develop; as a marketing vehicle, it would energize Barcelona's presence in the United States. And because it would give Barcelona's millions of American fans a reason to care about MLS, "it would have cost us nothing," Soriano says.
But the idea met resistance back home. One board member asked Soriano, "How are we going to explain to our fans that we're going to deviate money and effort to New York?" Another one, a good friend, looked him in the eye and said that there was only F.C. Barcelona "and it plays in Barcelona." Soriano remained convinced that a European club creating an MLS affiliate remained a good idea, but Barcelona wasn't the place to implement it.
- Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, more (U.S.)
In 2008, Abu Dhabi's Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the brother of the current president of the United Arab Emirates, bought Manchester City. He installed Al Mubarak to run it. Since the club had been founded in 1880, it had enjoyed limited success. It hadn't been England's champion since World War II. As late as 1999, it was playing in the country's third tier. It had never made the Champions League.
The club's chief executive, Garry Cook, stayed on to oversee the transition and when he left in 2011, Al Mubarak launched a worldwide search for a successor. Al Mubarak had worked in banking, energy and finance: he expected the best football clubs to attract similar executive talent. "It shocked me when I came in," he says. "There was a huge mismatch. There were a bunch of sports guys, many who had come directly from football. They didn't have good management or strategic skills. It was far less developed than I thought it would be."
In his first three years with the team, Al Mubarak authorized spending hundreds of millions of dollars on transfers. The acquisitions that ultimately transformed the club into a winner were those that prompted the UEFA sanctions. "You had to pay a premium to convince guys like Yaya Toure and David Silva to come," admits Omar Berrada, who runs football operations. "There was a period of investment when we had a big loss."
To Berrada, that was the only way Manchester City could get to a point at which it could compete in the Premier League. "There has been no case -- not a single one -- of a club that has grown organically and consolidated their position at the top," he says. "It's almost impossible."
In 2011, Manchester City qualified for the Champions League for the first time and also won its first F.A. Cup since 1969. The following season, it would win the Premier League title. But Al Mubarak had his sights set on the biggest clubs, and he realized Manchester City couldn't compete by working in the traditional way. "We were just too far behind," he says. "So I understood that we needed to do something different. I just didn't understand what different meant."
Three years earlier, after leaving football to run Spanair, a Barcelona-based airline, Soriano had written a book, Goal: The Ball Doesn't Go In By Chance. It applied football lessons to business management. It also examined how football clubs could apply sound business practices. "The big football clubs have names that are recognized all over the world, they have the know-how to create successful teams," he wrote. "So why don't they create different franchises and have teams that play in other leagues, like the Japanese or North American leagues?"
In January, 2012, Al Mubarak interviewed Soriano in a conference room at the Mandarin Oriental in Paris. Within half an hour, he knew he'd found his man. At one point, after Al Mubarak had asked him what went wrong at Barcelona, Soriano mentioned his failed attempt to create an MLS team. Al Mubarak was fascinated. "We spent an hour talking about it," he says. "The conversation kept going. 'What if it's actually not just MLS? What if we look at ourselves as a group that owns clubs all around the world: Asia, Africa, Europe?'"
Al Mubarak hadn't read Soriano's book, but it was as if he was quoting from it. He immediately understood the synergistic possibilities. "We started thinking about this concept almost like venture capitalists," he says. It was a comparison that could strike football executives as inspirational or chilling, depending on their perspective.
Soriano knew that Manchester City had a rich and colorful past. Its fan base was devoted, though the previous half-century had given it "more downs than ups," he says. But clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United had an international presence, while Manchester City had only minimal support beyond its urban core.
Not incidentally, those superclubs also had narratives of historical success. "We didn't," Soriano says, "so we had to go to the market and sell something different. We couldn't be the club of the past, so we had to be the club of the future. We had to innovate. And the bold thing we did was create this group."
- O'Hanlon: Ranking the Champions League field from 32 to 1 (E+)
On his second day at Manchester City, Soriano traveled to New York to meet with Garber. He learned that an MLS franchise was still available, but there were other prospective owners. For Al Mubarak to get it, he'd have to pay the league's expansion fee of $100 million. As at Barcelona, some of the club's executives didn't see the point. Why divert resources across the ocean when you're working to build a champion at home?
Al Mubarak and the club's directors didn't hesitate. On May 21, 2013, NYCFC was announced as MLS's 20th franchise. It was branded in Manchester City blue.
City Football Group was created as an umbrella organization overseeing what were anticipated to be multiple holdings. "A layer of management added to the way we sign and sell players," says Berrada.
In January, 2014, Melbourne Heart, an existing A-League club, was acquired and rebranded as Melbourne City. In 2015, the club purchased a 20% share of Japan's Yokohama F Marinos. By 2020, CFG had an interest in 10 clubs, all folded into the group run by Soriano. "Economy of scale," Al Mubarak says.
Other clubs, notably Chelsea, have mastered the technique of stockpiling young talent and distributing it across lesser leagues domestically and abroad on loan deals, but the evolution of those players depends on where they're sent. Even if teams are carefully chosen, conditions can change. "If I send a player to the Championship and they sack the manager and install a different system, I've wasted a year of the development of the player," says Begiristain. "Having control is very important."
The breadth of clubs in CFG's portfolio also helps convince young prospects to come. By the time that Talles Magno, a striker who debuted in Vasco da Gama's first team as a 17-year-old, was ready to leave Brazil in the spring of 2021, his talents were no secret. He had enticing offers from the Netherlands and Portugal, but City's recruiters convinced Magno that he wasn't ready for a first-tier European club. They believed they had a better option for him than a second-tier club, where coaching and facilities might be sub-optimal. "It was 'don't go to Europe now. Come to New York,'" Soriano says. "'And if you make it there, we'll take you to Europe.'"
- MLS Power Rankings: NYCFC in trouble?
City paid $10 million to acquire Magno -- a lot for an untested Brazilian forward, but a minimal investment for a player who might end up at the Etihad. Last season, he scored the winning goal in NYCFC's Eastern Conference final against Philadelphia. This year, he has started 25 games and scored six goals. He's only 19. "We think he has the possibility to get to Manchester," Soriano says.
Soriano admits that the odds of any one CFG player ending up on Guardiola's team sheet are low. Nobody on the current Manchester City roster came through the pipeline. Currently, six players with Manchester City contracts who have come up through the system are out on loan. Leeds winger Jack Harrison is the biggest name in another group of players that were brought to Manchester and sold elsewhere in Europe.
Soriano considers several others currently at CFG teams as prime prospects to get to the Etihad. "If one makes it," he says, "that pays for all the rest."
On an 80-acre urban campus that used to be a dusty field, a multi-building compound built in 2014 combines a training center and academy for Manchester City with a corporate headquarters for City Football Group. Designed in part by Marwood, the attention to detail is extraordinary. The analytics area, enclosed in glass, is positioned so players must walk past frequently. The idea is to get them inside to find out various ways they might improve. "So now, maybe someone comes past and sees a teammate in there and thinks, 'I should go in and do that,'" Marwood says.
Players with long-term injuries do their rehab in a corner of the vast gym where windows are high enough that training sessions aren't visible. "That would be demoralizing," Marwood says. As they get close to returning, they move to a light-filled area adjacent to the field. The expectation is that watching their teammates will motivate them to finish the process.
The center of the main building is called "The Heart of the City." An open-plan meeting space, it serves breakfast and lunch. Snacks and beverages are always available. Occasionally a player will pass through in his training sweats. Mostly, it's filled with staffers from various departments who gather in small groups or walk through holding coffee mugs. They could be working at a tech firm or an ad agency.
One afternoon, Roel de Vries finds a table on the far side of the room. He needs to eat a quick lunch between a Zoom meeting with executives from around the group and his weekly download to Soriano. De Vries arrived in Sept. 2020 to serve as CFG's chief operating officer. In his appearance and demeanor, he resembles a prototypical corporate executive. And for 26 years before joining City, that's exactly what he was, at Nissan Automotive. From cars to football teams, the segue has been seamless.
"The basic businesses of a large international organization," he says with a shrug. "You have talent management. You have standard processes and procedures. You have one entity learning from another entity. I think that's an enormous benefit we have over stand-alone clubs."
Small clubs typically have trouble finding smart, qualified executives. "To get a good business person somewhere like Troyes or Girona normally is not easy," de Vries says. "But we can attract talent that other clubs can't." The reason is simple: working for a CFG club is more interesting. Employees have the opportunity to contribute to group-wide projects: their ideas, on anything from holiday parties to set pieces, might easily find their way to Manchester. "The IT team, you're working with New York, you're working with France, with India, with Australia," he says.
You also might end up working in those places. When CFG bought Lommel SK, the head of Manchester City's charity foundation relocated there as CEO. "He had the ambition to run a club," de Vries says, "but Manchester was too big. He'd never dealt with match-day issues, partnerships, buying and selling players." De Vries reports now that NYCFC's head of marketing is leaving. "So I'm asking some of my Manchester people, 'Want to spend a few years in New York?'"
The success of CFG's corporate model has been noticed by other investors who have been building stables of clubs, such as Miami-based 777 Partners, which has added Genoa, Vasco da Gama, Standard Liege and Red Star to its portfolio in the past year alone. The United World group, run by Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdullah, is built around Sheffield United. David Blitzer, Real Salt Lake principal owner, has holdings in England, Germany and Spain. Red Bull has six clubs from Austria to Ghana. None of those has the same degree of integration as CFG or a similar corporate structure, but the building blocks are there.
Inevitably, there will be others. For the same $3 billion that Boehly and his partners recently paid for Chelsea, an entity could buy an MLS club and add teams in every country where CFG now operates and beyond. The ownership stakes in Palermo, Lommel, Troyes and Montevideo were acquired for a total of less than $50 million. Boehly himself seems interested in adding several smaller clubs to create a similar stable.
Every so often, though, the football world pushes back against such corporate machinations. In 2018, RB Leipzig needed a win to help its qualification chances for the Europa League's knockout stage. Its opponent, Salzburg, was already almost certain to advance. The problem was, the clubs effectively had the same owner, so the prospect of collusion loomed like a dark cloud over the match. UEFA, which limits each ownership group to one club in European competition, allowed both clubs to play in that tournament because of a technicality. But when each qualified for the Champions League that season, it threatened to ban Leipzig if structural changes within the Red Bull group weren't made.
With Girona's promotion to LaLiga, City now has three clubs eligible for UEFA competitions. Lommel and Italy's Palermo would join them if they get promoted. And with Standard Liege and perennial European qualifier Sevilla in the same orbit, 777 would seem even more vulnerable to multiple qualifications. At some point, with one group or another, it is inevitable.
Sometimes, too, the pushback comes from local markets. When City announced plans to buy Holland's 110-year-old NAC Breda for $7.5m earlier this year, it didn't appear to be a controversial transaction. The local investors who had saved the club from economic ruin were ready to move on. "They wanted someone to come in and get it back to the top division," de Vries says. "They needed real expertise, real knowledge, and some investment."
Manchester City seemed an ideal suitor. Several Breda players had been loaned out to City clubs around the world. "But the more passionate the supporters, the more history a club has, the more challenge you get," de Vries says.
When it came time for the sale to be finalized, Breda's football community vowed not to let it happen. The protests weren't limited to Holland; groups also traveled to Lommel and Manchester to publicize their cause. One paraded a banner outside City's Etihad before a game. "Stay out of our territory," it read. "NAC is not a City Group story."
De Vries, who grew up in the Netherlands, was sent to Breda to assess the situation. He assured the supporters that the club's identity wouldn't change, but they were unmoved. "If all of the soccer world is going to look like just a few networks of clubs, we won't let that happen without a fight," Leon Deckers, a member of one of the Breda fan groups told a website affiliated with Arizona State's Global Sport Institute. "Your club gets stripped down and rebuilt. It loses all of its local flavor."
Faced with the process of an unfriendly takeover, CFG withdrew.
On the days when Yankee Stadium is temporarily transformed into an MLS venue, the team shop is filled with NYCFC-branded items. Surprisingly, there's not a Manchester City shirt or scarf in sight.
Soriano has a reason. Many soccer fans in New York have established European rooting interests, he explains before an NYCFC game on a July evening. "It could be Bayern Munich or Inter Milan or Arsenal. We want to make them all feel welcome."
Only seven years have passed since NYCFC's first home game in March, 2015. That night, Soriano took a walk around Yankee Stadium as fans were starting to arrive. With him was one of those Manchester City executives who had been unconvinced about the value of the project. "We saw long lines of people dressed in blue," Soriano recalls. "I had tears in my eyes. I turned to the person I was with said, 'How would you feel if all these people were dressed in red, and we were going to watch a New York United game?' And he told me, 'I get it now.'"
When NYCFC won MLS last year, it validated the vision that coalesced in Paris nine years before. To win the Premier League, Manchester City used an open checkbook, but MLS operates with tight salary restrictions. NYCFC's payroll of just under $13 million ranked tenth in the league. As of today, 26 players make more than defender Thiago Martins, NYCFC's highest earner. "Everything in MLS depends on getting the best value," says David Lee. "It may not be the best player, but the best value in the market. That's where our scouts and connections really, really help."
From the owner's box, surrounded by Yankee paraphernalia, Soriano watches NYCFC advance the ball with a series of short passes. Even dressed in the same shade of blue, nobody would confuse the team's level of talent with that of Manchester City. Still, the patterns are the same. "We want to have possession of the ball," Soriano says. "We want to play with high defensive lines. We want to play with open wingers. We want to recover the ball fast."
NYCFC's best player is Taty Castellanos, but only until the end of the night. The league's leading scorer in 2021, he will leave the next day to join Girona, which was promoted into LaLiga in June. "We brought him here when he was very young, just a kid," Soriano says. "Now he's a man and he needs another challenge. And now that we have a team in LaLiga, it's the perfect place."
That's an unfortunate side effect of having NYCFC serve as a feeder club to Europe's top leagues. Would any other MLS team move its best player halfway through its season? Yet for Castellanos, Soriano insists, a move is the natural course of events. "The players who make it here, they want to go to Europe," he says. "And we can't stop it."
When NYCFC signed Magno, they promised him that Castellanos would leave within a year and he would inherit the position of striker. "If we don't do it, if when Castellanos is ready to go we don't let him, I'm breaking the system," Soriano says. "And Talles Magno can say, 'You lied to me.'"
On the field below, Magno moves forward with the ball. With a burst of speed, he catches a defender flatfooted. Then he sends a deft pass to Castellanos on his right. From just those few moments, his potential is evident. "Look at him!" Soriano gushes. "You can see he has the talent to get to Manchester. Will he be able to convert it to goals and assists? That remains to be seen. But he has the talent."
The ball ends up over the end line, but Soriano grins. The system is working.