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Thursday, December 03, 2020

Mumbai City, ISL and City Football Group: A tale of many cities

As Mumbai prepares for its first full season under City Football Group, the challenge for the new owners will be to make the city relevant once again in the domestic football scenario.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | New Delhi | Updated: November 20, 2020 8:43:31 am
Mumbai City finished fifth last year with 26 points from 18 matches. (File)

A few months ago, Brian Marwood received a wish list from Mumbai at his City Football Academy office in Manchester. It specified the requirements for a striker: type of player, age, kind of skill-set he should possess, and of course, the budget.

As the managing director of global football at the City Football Group (CFG), Marwood is responsible for the nine teams in as many countries controlled by the sporting conglomerate, except the flagship club Manchester City.

Immediately, he activated CFG’s network of 65 scouts in different parts of the world. And weeks later, Mumbai City completed one of the most eye-catching deals of the season: signing Sydney FC star Adam Le Fondre on a year-long loan deal.

“I have worked as a professional coach for 25 years, starting at Barcelona (with the youth team),” says Mumbai City manager Sergio Lobera. “But I have never worked this way before.”

Lobera, who was an assistant to Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova in 2012, was himself chosen by Marwood’s team in Manchester to manage Mumbai City months after CFG announced that they would acquire 65 percent stake in the Indian Super League (ISL) side.

While the deal is yet to receive formal approval from the government – needed because of the country’s foreign investment regulations – Mumbai City will begin their first full season under new ownership on Friday (Mumbai begin their campaign against NorthEast United on Saturday), when the fresh ISL season kicks off in Goa.

And for the next five months, every pass they make, every goal they score or concede, and every match won or lost in Goa will be analysed by thousands of CFG employees, led by Marwood’s technical team in Manchester.

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Damian Willoughby is the Senior Vice President of Partnerships at City Football Group. (CFG)

In 2018, sports business expert Simon Chadwick compared CFG to McDonald’s: Bigger the group, he told the Sydney Morning Herald, “the more the individual parts can help each other with co-branding opportunities and intelligence sharing.”

“Our CEO references it more as Disney given the sort of parallels and synergy between artists and players… we have a media business as well as an event and entertainment business,” says Damian Willoughby, referring to CFG chief executive Ferran Soriano’s vision of the franchise model.

Willoughby was responsible for CFG’s marketing partnerships for six years before he was appointed CEO of City Football Group India last November. He, Soriano and other executives from the CFG spent a little more than 24 months studying and understanding the Indian football system when the group decided to expand its global presence.

Other than India, the CFG – valued at $4.8 billion by Forbes – owns, or has stakes in, clubs in Australia (Melbourne City), Belgium (Lommel SK), China (Sichuan Jiuniu), France (Troyes AC), Japan (Yokohama Marinos), Spain (Girona), Uruguay (Montevideo City Torque), the USA (New York City) and, of course, Manchester City in England.

Four of these sides – Manchester City, Melbourne City, Montevideo City Torque and Yokohama Marinos – have won titles in their respective countries within years of the CFG takeover. But if give-and-take is a part of the policy, then the CFG also benefits from their presence in some of the countries.

Lommel, for instance, has highly-rated training facilities and youth development programme, Montevideo is a base for scouting, signing and developing South American talent while Girona is used to give players some exposure in a competitive league.

It’s tough to see where Mumbai fits in this web of clubs. It has little time for domestic football, pitiable football infrastructure, practically no fan base for a local club and a fading history vis-à-vis the domestic game.

CFG, Willoughby says, looked into the commercial possibilities as well as footballing potential – two of the key factors they look into while adding a club to their portfolio – of Mumbai before buying a majority stake from actor Ranbir Kapoor and chartered accountant Bimal Parekh.

To make Mumbai relevant again on the Indian football scene, the billion-dollar group isn’t simply going to dip into its vast financial reserves. Instead, their plan is to first put in place a ‘robust pyramid.’ “Where we generate, and drive enthusiasm at a recreational level that then translates into youth level, then academy and then obviously progresses into a first-team environment,” Willoughby says.

In Melbourne, the CFG built a state-of-the-art facility for a reported sum of 15 million Australian dollars and academies in some other cities. For Mumbai City, there isn’t any such ‘concrete plan’ right now.

“But if you look at the blueprint that the group has adopted in other clubs – we’ve developed Manchester City Football Academy in Melbourne, in New York – then it’s obvious to see the infrastructure plays a key role,” Willoughby says.

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Mumbai City put the transfer market to good use by making one of the most exciting teams for the new season. (File)

Le Fondre has seen first-hand how Melbourne grew after CFG took over. “They were always a prominent team in the league, always around top-four and always trying to strive for the final. Obviously, they were trying to set a culture there and Melbourne became really competitive,” the 33-year-old, who was in the A-League’s team of the season in 2018-19 and 2019-20, says.

A number 9 with a wealth of experience of playing in the English Premier League, English Championship and Australian League, his signing was seen as a statement of intent. Le Fondre, along with other major signings like Nigerian international Bartholomew Ogbeche, French midfielder Hugo Boumous, Moroccan Ahmed Jahouh, Mandar Rao Dessai, Farukh Choudhary, and young striker Vikram Pratap Singh make Mumbai one of the most exciting and strongest teams for the new season.

As much as what they do during the course of the season, they will be keenly followed to see how they do it, given that they have CFG’s technical expertise at their disposal. Willoughby says Marwood’s team in Manchester remains touch with manager Lobera three or four times a week. They teach him how to use City’s performance analysis tools to dissect his team as well as the opposition. Opinions of specialist coaches, physiologists and mental health experts are readily available.

And in a unique season like this, which will be held in a bio-secure bubble because of the pandemic, there is specific intel on how to operate within the restrictions. “They provide knowledge of living in a bubble in 10 different locations. There are a lot of people with knowledge about football so you don’t waste time telling what’s necessary for coach or players,” Lobera says. “This system is one of the reasons I came to Mumbai City.”

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