PEP’S CITY

India Today - - LEISURE - —Shougat Das­gupta

For top foot­ballers, the sea­son is an ever-length­en­ing or­deal. Some 108 play­ers from English Pre­mier League clubs played at the World Cup in Rus­sia, more than from any other league; Spain’s top di­vi­sion fin­ished a dis­tant sec­ond, pro­vid­ing 78 play­ers. Within days of the World Cup’s con­clu­sion, Pre­mier League teams were al­ready pack­ing for mean­ing­less pre-sea­son friendlies in far-flung out­posts of the ‘em­pire’—in Aus­tralia, Sin­ga­pore, the US.

The club with the most play­ers at the World Cup was Manch­ester City with 16, more than their ri­vals United, more than the most suc­cess­ful, most pres­ti­gious clubs in Euro­pean foot­ball—more than Real Madrid and Barcelona, more than Bay­ern Mu­nich and Ju­ven­tus. City’s rise has been me­te­oric. Since win­ning a League Cup in 1976, the last, fad­ing echo of a rel­a­tively glit­ter­ing pe­riod for the club, City had floun­dered, play­ing in the third tier of English foot­ball in the same sea­son that Manch­ester United swept to an un­prece­dented tre­ble, win­ning the Pre­mier League, the Cham­pi­ons League and the FA Cup.

In 2008, the club, owned then by the for­mer Thai prime min­is­ter Thaksin Shi­nawa­tra, was bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group. Af­ter a decade, and over a bil­lion pounds in in­vest­ment, City has won three league ti­tles (hav­ing man­aged two since its found­ing in 1894), an FA Cup, and two League Cups. Last year, un­der the guid­ance of the for­mer Barcelona and Bay­ern Mu­nich man­ager Pep Guardi­ola, City broke the records for most goals, most points, and most wins in a sin­gle Pre­mier League sea­son, fin­ish­ing 19 points clear of United, their clos­est chal­lengers. The sea­son has been cap­tured in ex­haus­tive, if unil­lu­mi­nat­ing, de­tail by the Ama­zon Prime doc­u­men­tary se­ries All or Noth­ing. Re­leased on Au­gust 17, all eight epi- sodes are avail­able to watch, pro­vid­ing a back­stage look at the smooth run­ning of a suc­cess­ful, multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion.

The op­er­a­tive word for All or Noth­ing: Manch­ester City is slick. Ev­ery­thing about it gleams, from the pro­duc­tion val­ues, to the club’s fa­cil­i­ties, to the league cam­paign it­self. This is more primped and preen­ing ad­ver­to­rial than doc­u­men­tary, as if in ex­change for ac-

cess, the film­mak­ers had to sus­pend all crit­i­cal judge­ment, anal­y­sis and his­tor­i­cal per­spec­tive. Guardi­ola is the undis­puted fo­cus of the doc­u­men­tary—a foot­ball prophet who, with the not in­con­sid­er­able help of Lionel Messi, Xavi and An­dres Ini­esta, cre­ated in Barcelona (2008-2011) per­haps the great­est club side in Euro­pean foot­ball his­tory.

An apos­tle of the Dutch mas­ter Jo­han Cruyff, Guardi­ola’s Barcelona and Bay­ern Mu­nich teams played in a dis­tinc­tive style—short pass­ing, with full backs as aux­il­iary at­tack­ers; press­ing op­po­nents high when pos­ses­sion is lost; and lots of tac­ti­cal foul­ing in no-man’s land, dis­rupt­ing the rhythm of op­po­nents starved of the ball for large parts of the game. In All or Noth­ing, Guardi­ola comes across as a cult leader, all manic en­thu­si­asm and phys­i­cal charisma. He gets in his play­ers’ faces, his af­fec­tion as ag­gres­sive as his anger. He speaks in gnomic, rat-a-tat sen­tences, mostly about courage and val­ues.

Last year’s The Ti­tle, by sports­writer Scott Mur­ray, tells the story of the foun­da­tion of the English League in 1888 to the cen­tury-long his­tory of the first di­vi­sion (1892-1992), be­fore it was re­placed in the 1992-93 sea­son by the gussied up Pre­mier League. It re­minds you how open the top di­vi­sion of English foot­ball, in­deed Euro­pean foot­ball, once was, how pro­vi­sional the gap between cham­pi­ons and also-rans. Gone now is the parochial English game—its sol­i­dar­i­ties and ri­val­ries bol­stered by the largely shared class and cul­ture of both play­ers and fans—re­placed by cor­po­rate and cos­mopoli­tan val­ues. Manch­ester City at­tracted tens of thou­sands of pay­ing sup­port­ers, bound by com­mu­nity. What keeps a global com­mu­nity of Manch­ester City fans to­gether? A con­stant flow of money from Abu Dhabi and the tro­phies it buys? As jour­nal­ist James Mon­tague shows in The Bil­lion­aires Club, Pre­mier League clubs are play­things of global rob­ber-barons—Rus­sian oli­garchs, Chi­nese bil­lion­aires, Amer­i­can busi­ness­men, and Arab princes. But why should fans care when the au­thor­i­ties clearly don’t?

As the Pre­mier League re­turns to our screens this week­end, we in In­dia, like arm­chair fans around the world, will be glued to our screens in num­bers that our lo­cal clubs and leagues can­not hope to get. It’s not the foot­ball we love in In­dia, where Pre­mier League watch­ers are largely ‘af­flu­ent’. It’s

the brand.

Guardi­ola trained his Barcelona and Bay­ern Mu­nich teams to play in a dis­tinc­tive style

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