Zack Blumberg: Soccer: The geopolitical game

Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 4:32pm

On May 13, 2012, Manchester City Football Club won the English Premier League title in one of the most dramatic finishes in sports history. Down 2-1 to Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the season, Manchester City needed a win to overtake crosstown rivals Manchester United, something that they accomplished through goals in the 92nd and 94th minutes. For City fans, the championship represented the glorious conclusion to a momentous rise from irrelevance to stardom — the club had spent years bouncing between the top two divisions of English soccer, and hadn’t won England's top league title since 1968. While City fans were ecstatic, for club owner Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, this was just the beginning.

Four years earlier, in 2008, Manchester City was coming off a decent — but unremarkable — campaign, having finished 9th in the Premier League. However, the club’s owner, former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, had become embroiled in a series of political scandals, which had led to the freezing of his bank accounts. Shinawatra, desperately needing to offload the team, sold it to Mansour, deputy prime minister of the United Arab Emirates and Emirati businessman, and his private equity company, Abu Dhabi United Group.

Mansour, whose family has an estimated net worth of well over $1 billion, made it clear immediately he wasn’t there just for show — he intended to build an elite club, whatever the cost might be. Since taking ownership of the club, Mansour has followed through: City has spent £1.4 billion, won three Premier League titles, and has become one of the biggest clubs in Europe. But this begs a question — why would a Middle Eastern investor sink billions of pounds into a soccer club based thousands of miles away from Abu Dhabi in Manchester, England?

Historically, sports have served as a valuable asset for promoting “soft power” — a mechanism by which countries gain international standing not through brute force or economic might, but rather by seeming attractive to foreign states and citizens through cultural appeals. Traditionally, this was done through hosting or doing well in either the Olympic Games or the World Cup — the two truly global sporting events. However, as the Premier League developed into a worldwide phenomenon, Mansour has been able to harness it as a tool for soft power.

For Mansour and his nation, the United Arab Emirates, club ownership isn’t only a financial investment, but also a cultural and political one. Mansour is a member of the UAE’s elite economic and political class, which are highly intertwined thanks to the UAE’s oligarchical government. In addition to being the owner of Abu Dhabi United, Mansour is the half-brother of the UAE’s current president and is the chair of the ministerial council for services and Emirates Investment Authority.

Historically, the UAE has not been a particularly powerful nation — it only gained independence in 1971. However, thanks to the discovery of (some) oil, the creation of favorable incentives for foreign corporations, and an increase in tourism, the country — especially the cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai — has enticed the blossoming of glamorous metropolises over the past 15 years. In coordination with the UAE’s sudden increase in wealth, it makes sense the country would want to promote itself internationally and sports ownership is an excellent way to accomplish that.

Mansour and Abu Dhabi United Group are, in many ways, the UAE’s representatives to the West. Their philosophy seems quite simple: In order to create a positive reputation in the West, they must associate themselves with elite teams in the world’s most popular sport.  

However, the UAE’s sports-based rebranding project is far from the wholesome, educational endeavor it claims to be. Rather, it is highly problematic and disingenuous. Mansour may promote the UAE as a glamorous, exotic country whose ownership represents the nation’s own success and positivity, but that simply isn’t true. As City’s obscenely expensive squad runs circles around their Premier League opponents, there are many things going on back in the UAE that Mansour would probably prefer weren’t mentioned.

Of the UAE’s residents, 88.5 percent are low-income foreign workers, many of whom work in the UAE under the “kafala” system, which is classified as a form of modern-day slavery. In the system, the government delegates oversight of these workers to private companies, where the terms of their contracts, such as pay, contract duration and days off are treated as suggestions, not requirements. There is no protection for the workers, no way for them to appeal violations of their contracts and they are unable to leave or quit without the approval of their employer. While the UAE finally attempted to rectify the system with the 2017 domestic workers bill, it is unclear how effective that will truly be.

Mansour and his associates probably hope another solid season for City will distract people from the UAE’s archaic gender/sexuality policies and oppressive speech and press restrictions. In 2016, Mansour hired the world-renowned manager Pep Guardiola, who signed a contract for a salary in excess of $15 million per year. Mansour backed Guardiola, a proud Catalan, as Guardiola defiantly wore a ribbon in support of Catalan independence from Spain.

However, as Mansour promoted the values of free expression and peaceful dissidence abroad, the nation’s president, Mansour’s half-brother, simultaneously, peacefully sentenced dissidents in their own country to prison time for allegedly communicating with the Muslim Brotherhood, and the country ranks 128th out of 180 in press freedom. In addition, the state is equally close-minded toward gender and sexuality. A woman’s male guardian must sign off on a marriage contract before she can get married, and spousal abuse and rape are permitted. In the city of Abu Dhabi, “unnatural sex” is punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Perhaps most insultingly of all, while violating human rights within their own borders, the UAE, through City Football Group, promotes community-building, “health” and “inclusion” in the greater Manchester area in order to try and curry favor with local supporters.

While Mansour’s ownership of City was the first major example of an oppressive regime using the soft power of sports to try and rebrand itself, it is not alone. Emirates airline, another Emirati company (this one privately owned) has also attempted to improve the UAE’s reputation globally through a large series of sponsorship deals. Today, the airline is the main shirt sponsor of Arsenal, Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain, Hamburger SV and AC Milan.

Perhaps inspired by the success of the UAE’s ventures into soccer, Qatar has followed suit. Through Qatar Sports Investments, the small, perhaps even more repressive gulf state purchased Paris Saint-Germain in 2011, and have also spent aggressively with the goal of building an elite club. Thanks to the massive influx of Qatari cash, the club was able to annihilate the world record transfer fee in the summer of 2017, purchasing Brazilian soccer player Neymar for a reported $263 million — a major boost for Qatar’s global recognition. Qatar has actually gone even further than Mansour or the UAE were willing to when it allegedly bribed a FIFA official to win the bid to host the 2022 World Cup.

Sports are often considered an escape from the world of politics, but, especially in the case of a sport as globally relevant as soccer, that is simply untrue. Soccer can provide joy, but it is important to realize the implications of oppressive regimes utilizing the sport as a public relations tool and understand the inherently politicized nature of this issue. While City may win their second straight Premier League title this year and fourth since Mansour took ownership it is crucial to not forget the costs that come with it.

Zack Blumberg can be reached at zblumber@umich.edu.