Manchester City's title win celebrated in Abu Dhabi, home of the club's owners
Club was brought out by member of Abu Dhabi royal family in September 2008
Sheikh Mansour has spent estimated $600 million on players alone since then
Qatar and Dubai also making their presence felt in European football
As Manchester City’s delirious fans spilled onto the pitch to revel in their team’s remarkable English title win on Sunday, the celebrations also kicked off thousands of miles away in Abu Dhabi.
In one cafe in the United Arab Emirates capital, some fans stood and danced, one even leaped onto a table, while others simply smiled contentedly as they puffed on their shisha pipes.
City’s dramatic 3-2 win over Queens Park Rangers was beamed to an estimated global audience of 4.7 billion in a powerful advert for just why Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan splashed out $320 million to buy the English Premier League club in 2008.
The title was won at the Etihad Stadium. The players wore shirts emblazoned with the Etihad Airways logo – the Abu Dhabi-based airline.
The title-clinching goal was scored by record $62 million signing Sergio Aguero in the dying seconds of the game.
It was, in short, the brightest indicator yet of the Middle East’s growing influence within European football.
“For a lot of the people here, they say that they didn’t even follow the Premier League until Manchester City was bought by the Abu Dhabi group,” reported CNN’s Leone Lakhani in Abu Dhabi, “so you can imagine they’ve been extremely happy with the results the entire year.
“It elevates the country’s emergence as a major sporting power.”
Owner Sheikh Mansour, a member of the country’s ruling family, wasn’t at the stadium on Sunday – he has been to only one match at the Etihad – and hasn’t yet commented on the club’s first title win in 44 years.
But it was Sheikh Mansour who invested more than $600 million on players like Aguero, Yaya Toure and Carlos Tevez, and helped the perennial underachievers beat neighbors Manchester United to the title on goal difference.
The incredible images on Sunday delivered the message on his behalf.
Etihad Airways, which carried a message of congratulations to City on its website on Monday, reportedly paid more than $600 million for stadium naming rights and shirt sponsorship over 10 years, but the benefits are huge.
“When you win national and international titles, the exposure to a very, very relevant target audience for us couldn’t be better,” Peter Baumgartner, chief commercial officer of the airline, told CNN.
While so many European countries are in financial difficulties, it isn’t just Abu Dhabi taking advantage of football’s global appeal.
Dubai airline Emirates has a high-profile stadium and shirt sponsorship deal with Arsenal, and the Dubai-based Royal Emirates Group took over La Liga club Getafe last year.
Getafe managed an 11th-place finish in Spain, seven places behind the league’s other Middle Eastern-owned club, Malaga.
Sheikh Abdullah Bin Nassar Al-Thani, a member of the Qatari royal family, bought out Malaga in 2010 when the modest club had never finished higher than seventh in the top flight. Veteran Dutch striker Ruud van Nistelrooy helped the club to a fourth-place finish this season and a place in the Champions League qualifiers.
Emboldened by the country’s shock winning bid to host the 2022 World Cup, Qatar has since worked on spreading its influence across Europe.
Qatar Sports Investment (QSI) reportedly paid $220 million over five years to put the Qatar Foundation name on Barcelona’s shirt , but it is in France where the tiny natural gas-rich nation is really making its presence felt.
QSI took over Paris Saint-Germain last summer, hoping not just to awake a sleeping giant of the French game but to create a new European powerhouse.
“This is our strategy to bring PSG on long term to be one of the biggest in the world,” club president Nasser Al-Khelaifi told CNN in March.
To that end, PSG brought Brazilian Leonardo on board as sporting director, paid a French record $56 million to sign Javier Pastore and hired Carlo Ancelotti as coach.
PSG might miss out on the league title – trailing Montpellier by three points with one game remaining – but the potentially exciting end to the season at least justifies al-Jazeera’s investment in the Ligue Un domestic television rights at a reported €510 million a year until 2016.
Al-Jazeera also has the international rights to the league, as well as most of the UEFA Champions League rights in France from 2012, and there are even suggestions that the broadcaster could make a bid for the UK rights for the English Premier League.
It is all designed to establish Qatar as a global sporting power, which the country hopes will be confirmed in 2022 when it hosts the biggest single-event sporting competition in the world.
The growing appeal of Qatar’s domestic league has also been highlighted in recent times, with former Spain and Real Madrid striker Raul swapping German Bundesliga side Schalke for Al-Sadd in the Qatar Stars League.
For now, though, it is Abu Dhabi in the spotlight as it joins the blue half of the city of Manchester in joyous celebration.