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United should be wary of another Manchester takeover funded by blood money

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Reds may turn up their noses at City’s dodgy ownership now, but face the prospect of even worse benefactors if this rumored takeover becomes reality.

Al Ain v Manchester City Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images

The game is on. The stadium is packed. And then you hear that chant:

“The city is yours, the city is yours, 20,000 empty seats, are you fucking sure?”

The banner about 34 years without a trophy might be torn down. Pep Guardiola might be across town coaching mesmerising football. City might look like perennial winners these days, but Manchester United will always feel superior. They feel superior because they know that even without success, they are still the biggest draw in Manchester. United fans are secure enough to know that while the taxi drivers picking people up outside Old Trafford grumble to tourists about how the ground isn’t even in the city of Manchester, they know it stems from City’s long-standing inferiority complex.

Fans know that while City are proving to be an attractive football team, they are never going to be one of the world elite like United, Bayern or Barça. Even Liverpool could realistically aspire to that level, but City never could. City have never won the Champions League, and even if they won it now, they didn’t win it in the 1950s and 1960s when the truly great teams were forged. Any newly incorporated champion now is nothing more than an alloy of ambition and money. PSG in the wet and rain.

There are endless taunts about how a Manchester United home game will lead to traffic congestion along the M1 from London. But United fans know that stems from jealousy. Jealousy regarding the appeal of United beyond the sphere of Manchester, and the appeal of United to fans in general. United have fans. The empty seats at the Etihad are a stick to beat City with; the fact that they can’t sell out their own ground. Remind the next City supporting taxi driver you meet of this.

The empty seats are a compelling visual. Then again; if you really want to cut to the core of Manchester City, should you not ask questions about their owners? City are owned by Sheikh Mansour, half-brother of Sheikh Khalifa, the absolute monarch of the United Arab Emirates. The Emirate monarchy has bankrolled Manchester City since 2009. How is that monarchy so wealthy? Where did their money originate? What type of regime do they rule? These are the types of questions that haven’t been asked enough.

The ugly truth is that wealth of the Emirate monarchies, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, is built upon an exploitive system akin to slave labour. Critics would call the Emirate states a dictatorship with a good sense for PR. It is a region with severe limitations on free speech, free press, the rule of law, independent judiciary and democratic elections. Critics of the monarchy have been known to disappear. The story of Jamaal Khashoggi’s disappearance from a Saudi consulate in Turkey is a timely reminder of the type of justice often employed in the Middle East.

Up to 80% of the Emirate population is made up of migrant workers from Northern Africa and South East Asia. These workers are poorly paid, entering the country on the kafala system in which their work visa is sponsored by an Emirate national. The system is corrupt and these workers are forced to surrender their passports to sponsors upon arrival. The system requires workers to get an exit visa from their sponsor in order to leave the country, or gain authorisation to move to another employer. This creates a tremendous imbalance between worker and sponsor, one which is often abused.

A 2006 Human Rights Watch report complained that abuses against migrant workers are carried out in almost absolute total impunity. A 2017 report stated that the abuses against Tanzanian domestic workers in the United Arab Emirates include “excessive working hours, unpaid salaries, and physical and sexual abuse, and abusive visa-sponsorship rules in those countries.” The UAE is controlled by the people who own Manchester City and ultimately fund the Pep Guardiola project.

The common reaction is that these situations occur in a different country, a different culture, one which is foreign to our own and one which we couldn’t possibly understand – but surely, we can identify slavery when we see it?

Somehow the misshapen dynasty of Manchester City’s owners has gotten very little column inches. Even Pep Guardiola was unwilling to be pinned down when he was asked about the origin of the money that pays his wages. Should a man so wrapped in the freedom flag of Catalonia then turn around and work for an organisation with such an appalling human rights record? Do the people of Catalonia really suffer as dire a fate as those living under the rule of the monarchy of the United Arab Emirates?

When Guardiola was asked how he could support the Catalonians but not the rights of migrant workers in the Middle East, his response was evasive. “Every country decides the way they want to live for themselves … If he decides to live in that [country], it is what it is. I am in a country with democracy installed since years ago, and try to protect that situation.”

Is Guardiola blind to the fact that these migrant workers entering into the kafala system are doing so out of dire desperation? Do the Manchester City fans care about this?

They don’t; and in their defence, the sad reality is that most football fans would probably turn a blind eye to a problem occurring so far away if they thought their team would provide a similar level of entertainment. It’s not apathy, but it’s a problem occurring too remotely to feel pertinent. If the world at large doesn’t care about what is going on in Middle Eastern states, then why should Manchester City fans rain on their own parade? There are bigger problems at hand, nearer mouths to feed, and ultimately football fans just want to be entertained.

Roman Abramovich used his purchase of Chelsea in 2003 to legitimise his status as an international player. In time, Sheikh Mansour’s ownership of Manchester City might serve to normalise and legitimise the Emirate monarchy in the western world. It doesn’t seem this would improve life for those living in the Emirates, but it would serve to make the world more accustomed to its rich rulers.

For United fans, the figurative blood on City’s hands is another reason for superiority over City in an era when football is not giving them much cause for celebration.

But a problem for Manchester United is that they are now linked with a potential Saudi takeover from Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The green and gold fans yearning for an end to the Glazers’ reign in Manchester might see a takeover as a promising prospect; especially with the prospect of a financial arms race between two rival Middle Eastern nations. Nothing could be further from the origins of Newton Heath however and the last thing Manchester United fans want is for their club to become a pawn for the super-rich.

And it then raises that question of the superiority United fans feel; would these same fans be comfortable with their club being owned by an organisation that has such an atrocious human rights record? The sad reality, is that like City, they might come to accept it should the team once again become a powerhouse on the field.

Should the Crown Prince bring success to Manchester, the fans will likely accept his reign and even don headscarves in his honour. Should he fail to bring success to Manchester, it is far more likely that the United faithful will be calling for his abdication, rather than an end to any abuses occurring thousands of miles away.

Regardless of whether a takeover happens, you can be certain that United fans will continue to laud their superiority over City. For many years to come yet, at quiet intervals at Old Trafford, you’re always going to hear that familiar taunting chorus:

“The city is yours, the city is yours, 20,000 empty seats, are you fucking sure?”