Manchester City: The Next Chelsea FC?

It wasn’t so long ago, I was completely outraged by Chelsea FC’s spending. 16.6m for Mekelele. 24.4m for Essien. 19.8m for Carvalho. 24m for Drogba. As a business, the club could sustain a 140m loss on a year because Roman Abramovich was there to bankroll the transfers. This was bad for football. The value of players skyrocketed. The old high water marks were obliterated. Bayern Munich chairman Karl-Heinze Rummenigge lamented the damage Chelsea spending was doing to European football. Wrecking the balance. Hogging the resources.

Now, with Manchester City as the new fat cat in town, I almost can’t remember why I was so mad at Abramovich.

Last winter rumors of Kaka coming to City abounded. The press figured City’s transfer offer to be as high as 130m. Thankfully it was turned down and Kaka stayed at Madrid Milan, but the fact City were willing to splash that much out on one player is scary.

City have already set a new British record when they spent 32.5m to buy Robinho from Real Madrid last summer. And they were reportedly talking about shelling out 60m to secure David Villa’s services from Valencia last winter. Villa made it clear then he wanted to stay. Now that Valencia is in serious financial trouble, one wonders if an expensive move may be made after all.

With all the money City are willing to spend it is almost refreshing to see them only pay 12m for Gareth Barry (the remainder of his contract was estimated at about 10m when I last wrote about him potentially leaving Aston Villa), but of course the fact they can offer him a meaty salary factors heavily into his move.

As when City coaxed West Ham’s prolific Craig Bellamy away for 14m, the promise of City’s future has its lure for players like Barry.

City are not looking to merely follow the Abramovich model. They are looking to crumple it up into a ball and leave it behind them in the dust, while the rest of us wonder… what were we so mad about c. 2006?

Abramovich’s past transfer coups are dwarfed by the prospects of 130m for Kaka and 60m for Villa. At some point City will make good on such offers. At some point a club is going to succumb to the lure of big money and sell the top class player for the outrageous sum and the glass ceiling (already raised so high by Chelsea) will come a’ tumblin’ down.

With the Abu Dhabi United Group behind City and with Abramovich’s wealth hurt by the global economic crunch, the Russian oligarch is slipping from his status as wealthy arch-villain into a role of, well, normal owner. He is not expected to spend anything near the amounts he dropped on the market in his first years at the helm. As Chelsea’s stars age, they seem like a club again. Not a superclub.

But the Chelsea spending model was largely a means to launch the club as a global brand. This has worked. Even if Abramovich curtails his upside-down business model and allows Chelsea to climb back into the positive in the books without his cash injections, the club is in a position to thrive and remain a force in domestic and continental football do to the exposure of the talent they brought in and the trophies they won since Abramovich took over.

This is now City’s aim. Using big name players and the potential marketing power of having the name “Manchester” at their disposal, City can make their way into a higher level of global recognition.

With no spending ceilings in place, there’s no need for pragmatism for business or concern for the damage the outrageous transfer fees can do to the sport.

The scary question is: what other investors will follow this absurd model? What other clubs will raise the bar beyond belief? And how high will the bids go?

In five years 32.5 for Robinho may not seem so crazy when the figure has been eclipsed by the next Chelsea FC or the next Manchester City. I cringe at the prospect.

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