x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Abu Dhabi kicks off premiership with audacious coup

Britons are no longer asking "where's Abu Dhabi?" but "will they win the Premier League?"

Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim, the chief executive of Hydra properties and the man who swung the deal.
Dr Sulaiman Al Fahim, the chief executive of Hydra properties and the man who swung the deal.
While all the talk in Britain was of falling house prices and an imminent recession, a group of investors in Abu Dhabi's Emirates Palace were preparing to change the balance of power at the top of the UK's Premier League. Dr Sulaiman al Fahim, the chief executive of Hydra Properties and front man for a private equity group led by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed, a sports enthusiast and in his public life a minister of presidential affairs, was putting pen to paper on a Dh650 million (US$177m) deal to buy out Thaksin Shinawatra, the former prime minister of Thailand's controlling stake in Manchester City football club.

Manchester City had suddenly been transformed from a club known only as the city's second best - thanks to its multi-trophy winning neighbour Manchester United - to one that is now controlled by an owner with resources to dominate the game. Man City's spending power would now be unrivalled. As soon as the news broke, a scattering of diehard fans rushed to the club's home ground, Eastlands, wearing homemade dish-dashes and proclaiming their admiration for all things from the Middle East.

The newly installed manager Mark Hughes was interrupted while playing golf and beamed at the prospect of bringing in the world's best players in the remaining 12 hours of the transfer window. And news organisations from all over Britain were going "mad for it", as they would say in Manchester, beaming live to their respective correspondents at every available moment to get the latest developments.

More interestingly, no one in the UK media seemed to really know who Dr Fahim or the group behind the deal was, let alone where Abu Dhabi was on a world map. They were completely unprepared. Twenty-four hour sport service Sky Sports News for example, failed to do their homework and got it completely wrong, claiming the deal makers were from Dubai and that they had never heard of any of the parties involved.

Even early editions of Tuesday's Times newspaper made the same error, stating that Dubai's royal family had made its first ever footballing purchase. As the day progressed, the name "Abu Dhabi" must have been read aloud, printed and tested more times across the country and around the world than at any time in its modern history. It was an audacious coup, a massive achievement, an incredible PR exercise, and as Dr Fahim promised in an interview that afternoon, "to play for and win every trophy available" was a mighty challenge but one which had been carefully calculated.

A short while later and with only a few hours remaining before the European transfer window closed until January next year, news began to break on the Press Association and various 24-hour news tickers that not only had Abu Dhabi bought a football club, but it was now trying to gazump two of its fiercest rivals and biggest Premier League Clubs out of a duo of key players they had been courting for months - Manchester United target Dimitar Berbatov and Chelsea prize Brazilian super striker Robinho.

First, Man City had a bid of in excess of £30 million (Dh197.5m) accepted by Tottenham Hotspur for Berbatov, while other reports suggested a bid of a similar value by Man United had been rejected by Spurs. The news emerged that Man City were trying to prize away Robinho from Chelsea's grasp while at the same time making two extraordinary bids for Valencia's hot Spanish prospect Ricardo Villa and Hamburg's Germany international Gomes - both bids of £30m or more.

"And yes, there it is," revealed the Sky Sports News reporter at Eastlands in the pitch black of a typical Manchester evening. "We are getting confirmation that Robinho has finally signed for Manchester City for £32.5m. Chelsea and owner Roman Abramovich can't be happy about that one," he added with a very weary but cheeky smile. Dimitar Berbatov failed to respond to the overtures from Man City, and signed instead with their neighbours on the other side of the city.

Luckily some of the British media had time to catch up overnight. Yesterday's headlines said it all. The Telegraph crowed "Manchester Mayhem: the Sheikh with a deep love of sport and even deeper pockets", while The Independent called it "The deal that transforms football". Britain's triumphs in coming fourth in the medals table at the Beijing Olympic Games have long been forgotten. A new player has emerged, joining the biggest and most watched sporting league in the world and with it snatching one of the world's best young footballers from under the very noses of the original foreign footballing controller. It was Abu Dhabi's day.