City spree shows you can't buy success

August 20, 2010

In big-time sports, it’s almost become a truism that there’s no success without money.

But could simply spending half-a-billion on big name players really turn the Washington Nationals into the New York Yankees, or -- putting aside the socialist institution of salary caps for a moment -- Lions into Colts or Clippers into Lakers?

Is it as easy as cutting a check, or are there cultural adjustments that need to be made on the road from also-rans to champions?

There’s an interesting socio-economic experiment under way in England's Premier League that promises to provide an insight into the relationship between an owner’s deep pockets and success on the field.

Manchester City, a club that has forever wallowed in the shadow of its famous neighbor, Manchester United, is awash in petrodollars.

On the day Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s Abu Dhabi Group bought the club in 2008, City automatically became the richest club in the world.

Yet the Citizens, as they’re also known, had no pedigree; no history of success.

The upstarts from the wrong side of the tracks suddenly were outbidding not only their city rivals but all the traditional giants, from Real Madrid and Barcelona to Milan and Juventus to Bayern Munich and even the London club that gave birth to this modern era of profligate overspending, Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea.

City has spent well over half a billion dollars in transfer payments on two dozen players as well as bringing in the championship-winning Italian coach, Roberto Mancini, to somehow mold an expensive collection of individuals into a successful team.

That figure, by the way, doesn’t include payroll, which easily tops $150 million a year.

Last season, Mancini’s first as manager, Man City finished fifth in the Premiership.
A respectable showing, but still far behind three traditional powers, Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal, as well as a resurgent Tottenham Hotspur, expertly guided by Harry Redknapp.

For all the talent available to him, Mancini could muster only 12 wins from 21 games after taking over midway through the Premier League season, three fewer than Sir Alex Ferguson got across town with United.

The Sheikh’s response was to throw more British Pounds at the problem, prompting the wily Ferguson this week to accuse City of “kamikaze” spending.

City’s two latest signings tell the story of the club.

Mario Balotelli is a willful 20-year-old Italian from African heritage who has a reputation for being both brilliant and petulant.

His relationship with his former club, European champions Inter Milan -- and especially Inter’s fans -- had become so poisonous that the Italians couldn’t believe their luck when City offered a staggering 22.5 million pounds to take Balotelli off their hands.

The forward came on as a substitute and scored the only goal Thursday as an unimpressive City struggled to beat Romanian minnows FC Timisoara in the Europa League.

But he provided a glimpse of the liability he could turn out to be when he got into an altercation with a Romanian player and received a yellow card. Be sure his temperament will be tested by ankle-crushing tackles in the Premiership.

The other player City signed this week is the promising young Englishman, James Milner. Milner has the potential to be very good, but is he worth the 24 million pounds Aston Villa got for him?

It’s safe to say not in any other team’s estimation.

"It didn't take too much selling by the boss when you see the players who are already here," Milner said of his decision to move north to Manchester.

"The last thing he said to me was, 'Be ready to win the Premier League'. That's my ultimate aim. That's why I'm here."


Not that it wouldn’t be nice to be champions of England, but is Milner not there for the same reason every player’s gone to Eastlands?

Because it’s where the money is?

That seems to be the lesson of Robinho, the talismanic Brazilian who as a teenager was anointed by Pele as heir to his throne.

The British transfer record was smashed when City paid 32.5 million pounds for him -- even Real Madrid couldn’t turn down a sum so large -- but after a good first season in 20008-09, Robinho lost his way last year.

Ten million dollars a year in wages weren’t enough to keep him interested and he eventually was sent back to play in Brazil. He’s now stuck in no-mans land, his price tag and salary far too high for most prospective suitors.

Maybe what’s most unsettling isn’t just the enormous amounts of money City’s willing to spend but just how random the spending has been.

Rather than a grand design, signings seemed governed more by the capricious instincts of a child in a chocolate factory.

Emmanuel Adebayor was expensive at 25 million pounds, but he seems even more so when Roque Santa Cruz, who cost 17 million, is sitting on the bench alongside a third tall central striker, the Brazilian Jo, who cost 19 million. Now Balotelli is thrown into that mix, so four players will vie for one position.

David Silva is a tremendously gifted player but he’s slight and his fragility will be exposed more in England than it ever was in the friendlier Spanish league.

Last week, in their Premier League opener against Spurs, Mancini paired Silva alongside another diminutive forward, Carlos Tevez -- like Silva, a 25 million pound signing - and, frankly, it was a disaster.

If it were not for goalkeeper Joe Hart, City would’ve lost heavily instead of escaping from London with a scoreless draw.

Ironically, the same Joe Hart who lost his place between the posts when City paid Newcastle eight million pounds for ‘keeper Shay Given.

Given now sits in the stands; yet another big money indulgence.

Meanwhile, the most expensive defensive grouping in the world looks so slow-of-foot and tactically clueless that Mancini may have to opt -- as he did in Romania -- to field three defensive midfielders, Yaya Toure (24 million, from Barcelona), Nigel de Jong (18 million, from Hamburg) and Gareth Barry, a 12 million pound signing from Aston Villa.

The problem is, of course, he can only field 11 players at any one time, thus ensuring his substitutes will cost more than the entire rosters of many teams City will play this season.

And that cuts to the core of Mancini’s greatest problem.

The pressure he faces to deliver trophies -- and a big test of City’s evolution comes Monday, in the home opener against Liverpool -- is based not on the true merits of his team, but the price tags of his players.

Robert Lusetich is a senior writer for