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The Manchester derby at Old Trafford in April 2019. EPA-EFE/NIGEL RODDIS

Manchester City v Manchester United: a battle for ideological dominance

The Manchester derby is always a key clash in the Premier League calendar and all eyes will be on the Etihad Stadium when City take on United, as the two footballing giants face-off for the first time this season. Yet the confrontation will be significant for reasons that go way beyond goals and titles.

So far this season, City have fallen some way short of the exacting standards they have set themselves over recent years under Pep Guardiola’s tutelage. Meanwhile, United is still immersed in post-Ferguson angst as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer grapples with his team’s continuing underachievement.

Adding some spice, each of the clubs’ off-field struggles are no less troubling. City has seen a Court for Arbitration in Sport ruling go against it as the club deals with charges that it breached UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations. Over at United, fans remain concerned about the club’s owners and their failure to deliver the levels of success they have previously enjoyed.

Yet despite the tensions associated with the head-to-head and the perpetual financial waltz of trying to work within the constraints of FFP, a bigger battle is being fought out in Manchester – one that is largely anonymous though profoundly more important than anything that a single Premier League game can manifest.

The owners of Manchester United, including Bryan Glazer, (2-L) Avi Glazer (C), and Joel Glazer (R) in the stands during the match with Swansea City at Old Trafford in May 2013. EPA/PETER POWELL

In 2005, Manchester United was acquired by the Glazers, a family of American sports entrepreneurs and owners of National Football League franchise the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Glazers are steeped in the traditions of a US domestic sports economy that remains the largest in the world, possibly accounting for 40% of the total global sports industry.

The growth and dominance of the US sports industry remains striking, as it has been governed largely by the free market. Unlike most countries in the world, America effectively has no government sports ministry. Instead, sport in the US is driven by commercial principles, where profit rules and financial returns are generated by and for private investors.

In many ways, Manchester United has become the embodiment of this western, capitalist model of sport. While costs are carefully controlled, revenue growth is pursued with gusto. This has constantly reaffirmed United’s position as being one of the most commercially valuable football clubs in the world, even though the club has been struggling on the pitch.

It also sees the organisation locked into a perpetual cycle of rights sales. The club now makes money on deals with anything from Japanese paint brands to Scottish whisky distillers.

United needs a win this weekend, not just for the club but also for the capitalist ideology that it represents. The club goes to great lengths in its pursuit of revenues, though its recent travails have taken some of the lustre off the brand. Victory at the Etihad will say just as much about the best way to run a football club as it does the team’s capabilities.

The ‘rentier state’ owners

A cursory glance at the list of Manchester City’s commercial partners might lead one to conclude that the club is of the same ilk as United. However, City is a very different proposition. In 2008, the east Manchester outfit was acquired by the Abu Dhabi United Group for Development and Investment, a state investment vehicle.

Hence, City is owned and run by a petrodollar-fuelled Gulf state, which exhibits the characteristics of a “rentier state”. As was discussed in a recently published book chapter that I wrote, among their characteristics rentier states are typically dependent upon natural resource deposits for revenues which are, in turn, used to invest in overseas rent-generating assets.

These rents are then utilised domestically as a substitute for taxation and spending, which mitigates the need for democratic structures and processes. Manchester City-generated revenues therefore play their part in keeping Abu Dhabi’s population happy.

The importance of Asian state ownership at City is further illustrated by the way in which its owners use the club as an instrument of state policy, notably in international relations and diplomacy. For instance, the City Football Group (CFG, of which Manchester City is a constituent element) is part-owned by Chinese investors, a stake that was publicly announced to coincide with Chinese president Xi’s Jinping’s visit to Britain in 2015.

Manchester City owner Sheikh Mansour during a Premier League match at the City of Manchester Stadium in 2010. Martin Rickett/PA Archive/PA Images

Utilising City as a policy instrument has enabled all manner of deals between Abu Dhabi and Beijing to be agreed. Earlier this year, as the football world responded to CFG’s announcement that it will set up a franchise club in Chengdu (China), few people noticed the simultaneous announcement that Abu Dhabi’s state airline Etihad (the main shirt sponsor of Manchester City) will establish new links with …. Chengdu.

The rentier state game plan in football is already well established, has been playing out for most of this year and, indeed, looks set to intensify as we head into 2020. A City victory in this weekend’s Manchester derby will add impetus to an increasingly powerful influence on the sport.

Not just a football match

City versus United is therefore no longer just a football match, it is a front line in what has fast become an ideological war between the West and the East. Sure, the war doesn’t solely involve a battle for the heart and soul of football. Similar skirmishes are also being played out in various sports and across other industrial sectors such as real estate, financial technologies and leisure.

Two decades ago, western capitalism ruled and United dominated. But the world order is now changing with Asian states in the ascendancy. Perhaps no surprise, then, that City is now dominant.

Unfortunately, as with many conflicts, there is collateral damage which, in this case, seems to be the football fans of Manchester. City supporters from Openshaw and West Gorton no doubt remain nostalgic for the good old days of Francis Lee and Colin Bell. Over in Stretford and Gorse Hill, United fans will often hark back to the days of the Busby Babes and King Eric.

But these once locally embedded social institutions, which were a tangible manifestation of peoples’ geographic identity and community, have now simply become instruments in a global ideological war.

However fans might reminisce, the reality is that the clubs are no longer “theirs”. Instead, the avaricious corporate appetites of western capitalism and the rent hungry sheikhs of the Gulf are now engaged in playing the biggest derby game of them all – the battle for ideological dominance.

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