MAY 20 ― Are Manchester City a big football club?
That may seem like a silly question about one of the most high-profile organisations within the world's most popular and glamorous sporting competition, but apparently their own manager doesn't think so.
Earlier this week, City coach Pep Guardiola made headlines by observing that his team's rather disappointing season, which concludes tomorrow with a trip to Watford where a point is required to secure a top four finish, would have resulted in him being fired if City were a “big club”, with the obvious inference being that his employers have not yet reached that status.
There are different measures of what constitutes a big club. If your only criterion is playing success, City clearly are one of the very biggest after winning two Premier League titles in the last five years and regularly reaching the knockout stages of the Champions League, including a semi-final appearance last season.
When it comes to money, City are also among the game's most powerful forces, with the riches of the Abu Dhabi-based owner Sheikh Mansour allowing them to make several big-money signings in the last few years, as well as recruiting Guardiola and making significant improvements to the club's infrastructure and facilities.
City are also high and mighty in terms of fan support. This season they have attracted an average attendance of around 54,000 to the Etihad Stadium, which ranks as the fourth highest in the EPL and comfortably among the top dozen in Europe.
Despite their success, their wealth and their support, however, there is definitely a sense in which Guardiola is right to say that City, when viewed from a global perspective, are not yet widely perceived as a “big club.”
The keyword there is “perceived”, because the only thing really preventing City from claiming a seat among the elite is perception. Everything else, as detailed above, is already in place, but none of that is quite enough to provide the necessary intangibles to lift the club into the upper echelons.
So if not City, then, who are the big clubs? Guardiola’s previous employers, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, are certainly there, along with global giants such as Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United. Wherever you happen to be in the world, these are the football clubs that everyone is watching and talking about, whoever they are playing against and however well they are playing.
For ambitious and fast-rising clubs like City, it’s galling that a handful of others also fit into the big club category despite having suffered lean times on the pitch in recent years. Specifically, Liverpool and AC Milan have still managed to maintain their status as globally popular superpowers despite winning little of note in the last few seasons.
That must be a source of frustration for the marketing specialists at places like City, who see their clubs putting everything in place and doing everything right to be considered among the game’s elite, yet they still can’t overtake Liverpool ― who have not won the Premier League title in nearly 30 years ― in the international public imagination.
Ultimately, it all comes down to history and tradition. Liverpool may have lurched from one disappointment to the next in the last couple of decades, but they will always have the glory years of Kenny Dalglish and famous Anfield nights to fall back on; AC Milan might be failing to even qualify for the Champions League these days, but memories of Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten will endure forever.
City don’t have that kind of history ― the kind of globally acclaimed stories which inspire nostalgic emotions everywhere from the beaches of Rio de Janeiro to the backroom bars of Beijing. Of course, City have their own unique, proud and rich history, but it does not compare to the giants of the game, whose shadow they are forever chasing.
They are not the only club in that position, with Paris St Germain also experiencing the problems encountered by newly-rich clubs whose attempts to rapidly convert themselves into a major player on the international scene is hampered by the fact that too few people care.
History is not written overnight and clubs like City and PSG must exercise patience in their quest to be taken seriously as “big clubs.” They may have the right infrastructure, big attendances, superstar players and renowned coaches, but building traditions takes longer than building a team.
None of this means it will never happen, however. For every football fan in Malaysia or the Philippines who remains attracted to the fabled legends of George Best and Roberto Baggio, there will be another who, 10 years from now, looks back sentimentally on the halcyon days of Sergio Aguero and David Silva.
Football clubs can only boast powerful histories when their achievements become past tense ― that’s how nostalgia, which plays such a large part in shaping the “brand” of football clubs, works. Traditions need time to be established, and ambitious clubs can only keep doing the right things and let the passage of time take care of the rest.
Others might be able to rest upon their history, but City are still making theirs. And with Guardiola in charge, they have the right person to write the stories which, in time, will become part of football folklore and allow them to become what they are currently not: a truly big club.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.