On Sunday, English soccer club Manchester City won the Barclays Premier League, a competition watched by hundreds of millions of fans around the world. It's the club's second championship victory in three years and a triumph that follows decades in the wilderness, overshadowed for so long by local rivals Manchester United.
But buoyed by the seemingly limitless wealth of its new owners -- an investment vehicle run by the Abu Dhabi royal family, who took over in 2008 -- the club is now a European powerhouse, poised for many years of future success. Indeed, Manchester City's emergence on the world stage tells a larger story about the realities of the 21st century.
The power of autocrats and petrodollars
The Abu Dhabi-based group that runs Manchester City is nominally a private company, but the identity of its owner -- Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and half-brother of its president, Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan -- tells a very different story. Since taking over the club from Thaksin Shinawatra, Thailand's controversial, exiled former ruler, the new ownership has plowed a staggering $1 billion into player acquisitions and salaries, assembling a team of international superstars. The name of the main Abu Dhabi-based airline, Etihad, is emblazoned upon the team's sky-blue jersey as well as Manchester City's space-age stadium.
The emirate's oil wealth gives Manchester City an incredible competitive advantage. The club is not alone: many of the current powerhouses in global soccer are run by sheikhs and oligarchs, whose lavish investments in their teams are often not tethered to any desire to turn a profit. Between 2011-2013, Manchester City lost around $255 million.
European soccer emerged out of organic social, community-based institutions. In some places, municipalities still own the grounds where teams play and, in Germany, many supporter groups still retain a controlling stake in their clubs. But the trend in soccer in recent decades has been decidedly anti-democratic, as the sport moved away from its humbler, working-class origins and started to rake in billions of dollars in TV deals and corporate sponsorships. In the hands of the tycoons and petrodollar-flush autocrats who now dabble in the game, soccer clubs have become glittering baubles admired by a covetous, global audience.
There's a line to be drawn from this state of affairs to the broader geopolitical landscape. The success of state capitalism in countries like Russia and China, as well as the growing clout of the sovereign wealth funds of authoritarian city-states like the U.A.E. and Singapore, is seen as a challenge to the prevailing liberal order. "How can you ensure a fair trading system if some companies enjoy the support, overt or covert, of a national government," questioned the Economist in an important 2012 special report on the rise of state capitalism. Many of Manchester City's competitors feel the same way.
The haves and the have nots
Manchester City's revealed losses (mentioned above) landed the club in hot water with UEFA, the institution that governs European soccer. A recently-installed UEFA rule regarding "Financial Fair Play" is meant to make clubs operate within their means, but questions remain over the body's ability to enforce this mandate, especially when accounting for the resources that owners like those of Manchester City can bring to their clubs. The current punishment levied on Manchester City amounts to a slap on the wrist that will do little to dent the club's pursuit of glory next season.
But there are myriad soccer clubs that can't afford such fiscal laxity. In recent years, European soccer has faced an epidemic of bankruptcy. Further down the divisions, teams struggle to pay their players' weekly wages, while supporter groups scrape together funds to help keep their beloved clubs afloat. And the gulf between the elite teams and the many other clubs who make up the numbers is only growing.
It's a fitting metaphor for larger trends of inequality in developed societies, as an increasingly smaller coterie of the super-rich account for a larger share of a nation's wealth -- and can exert undue influence on the rules of the game to keep it that way.
Strength in diversity
On Sunday, there was only one Englishman among the 11 players starting for Manchester City: Joe Hart, the team's goalkeeper. Soccer is global game and the best teams invariably boast a diverse array of talent. The spine of City's squad includes Hart, Vincent Kompany, the courageous club captain and Belgian center back of Congolese origin, Yaya Toure, a towering Ivorian midfielder and perhaps the best player in the world in his position, and Sergio Aguero, a diminutive, deadly Argentine striker. Manchester City is coached by a globe-trotting Chilean; its sporting operations are run by Catalans poached from the sporting superpower FC Barcelona.
According to the Upshot, if goals scored by Englishmen were the only ones that counted in this year's Premier League, then Manchester City would have finished near the bottom of the table. While some still champion such parochialism, the consensus remains in favor of the game's dominant cosmopolitan paradigm. The standard of the English league has improved markedly with an influx of foreign talent and few fans would prefer a return to an earlier era of blunt and plodding "traditionally English" soccer.
But debates still swirl around the identity and character of the English game, at a time when ascendant far-right political forces in the U.K. and elsewhere are challenging the European project. In one view, Manchester City is a symptom of the problem--in another, it represents a triumph of multiculturalism.
The local is global
Manchester City's owners -- like those of most other top sides -- care as much if not more about its global brand than its local support. Not long after the final whistle blew in Manchester on Sunday, the BBC World Service went straight to a reporter in Abidjan, who stood among throngs of supporters cheering another trophy for their hero, Yaya Toure.
This was not an isolated gathering. As City's star has risen, so too has its worldwide following. The club runs Web sites in 10 different languages and, like its more established rivals, goes on lucrative foreign tours in the pre-season. Moreover, its ownership has bought up franchises in other leagues, including a new New York City team scheduled to start in the MLS in 2015, playing at Yankee Stadium in Manchester City's colors.
That's a kind of soft power that has real traction in an increasingly inter-connected world. The concerns of TV viewers in Asia or the U.S. affects the English Premier League as much as those of season-ticket holders at its stadiums. For a long time, Manchester City's supporters saw themselves as the real, local team of Manchester -- United, after all, was the gaudy global heavyweight. Now, its owners are aiming to operate at a level very few other teams, if any, may be able to match.