Thaksin Shinawatra’s tenure as majority owner of Manchester City ended with a bang on Monday to cap an increasingly dramatic, absolutely incredible five days in the life of the club. As late as Thursday, City were a side struggling to win an UEFA Cup qualifier against Danish opposition. By Tuesday morning, City fans woke up to find their club being described as the richest in the world.
In between came a penalty kick shootout victory, the return of Shaun Wright-Phillips, two goals for the prodigal son on his return against Sunderland, and then the sale of Vedran Corluka to Tottenham.
But the biggest news came Monday when rumours that Thaksin might sell the club to Arab investors came to fruition. Thaksin sold his majority stake in the club to the Abu Dhabi United Group for Investment and Development, a group said to represent the royal family of Abu Dhabi (of the United Arab Emirates). Thaksin will remain as a minority shareholder and “honorary board member,” but control of the club has shifted to a group with seemingly limitless resources and ambition.
It didn’t take long for the owners to send a statement of intent to world football; in perhaps the most stunning transfer deal of all time, City sealed a deal for Real Madrid’s Brazilian striker Robinho for 32.5 million pounds. (The club also made a late, unsuccessful bid for Dmitar Berbatov, who instead made the move to Manchester United.)
Instantly, City have become one of the favourites in this year’s UEFA Cup, and more importantly the pressure will be on for manager Mark Hughes to deliver a Champions League place to City on his first attempt.
And so, the Thaksin Shinawatra story at Manchester City has come to an end that has satisfied the vast majority of the club’s supporters, including both Thaksin’s fans and his detractors. Thaksin fans say, “look, he’s left the club better off than he found it.” Thaksin detractors (including myself) are saying, “phew, he doesn’t own the club anymore and now we’ll be spared the circus and controversy he engendered.” Both sides are right. That Thaksin successfully brokered a business deal that benefits both himself and City’s footballing ambitions, and that he was willing to step aside for the good of the club (and his pocketbook) is cause for commendation.
But the fact that it ended well doesn’t disguise the many bumps along the way. Moreover, the delight that City fans have at recent developments confirm the judgment of those who doubted Thaksin’s fitness as a long-term owner for Manchester City.
At the heart of those doubts lay ethical concerns about the propriety of a still-active politician accused of corruption and human rights charges owning a Premier League club, and worries about the conflicts of interest that might engender. If Thaksin had continued to own the club, City would indeed have been mired this autumn in the muck of uncertainty and controversy as events in Thailand continued to unfold. All that has been put to rest, at least from City’s point of view.
Most City fans are very happy with recent events, but two serious issues remain.
First, there is the situation in Thailand itself, for those who actually care and have become interested (as I have) in Thai politics for its own sake. The ruling PPP government has declared a state of emergency to run through November 30 in response to a week of increasingly violent demonstrations aimed at the government and at Thaksin. The situation is ugly, and prospects of another military intervention or toppling of the government remain high. Thaksin remains in the center of all this, though the oppositional PAD is certainly no more committed to democracy than Thaksin ever was. The overreach of the PAD may actually increase Thaksin’s prospects for getting asylum and being let off the legal hook. Thaksin may have brokered the deal that transformed City into a powerhouse, but he remains the flashpoint of a political struggle that threatens to engulf his home country.
The second concern has to do with the nature of the new owners. Thaksin Shinawatra, for all his flaws, at least had democratic pretensions and some democratic credentials; the Abu Dhabi group are feudal overlords of a vast oil empire. City’s future success thus is to be bankrolled by the monopolistic control of a scarce natural resource by a patriarchal elite who have little interest in democracy.
That fact perhaps raises a new set of ethical concerns. Unlike the case in Thailand however, no one can think that whether or not this group owns a football club is going to tangibly affect political developments in the UAE, or vice-versa. Politics and football will not be so blatantly entangled as in the recent past.
Even so, part of the scepticism Thaksin faced carries over in spades to the new ownership group: worries by City supporters about whether the character of the club will change once it has become the property of an Abramovich-style billionaire. Right now few City fans are too worried about that, such is their hunger for some measure of success, but it’s an issue for the long term. Even more so, it’s an issue for the Premier League, which must accept that its top clubs are now increasingly playthings for the world’s billionaire set, not “clubs” organically connected to particular communities and particular fans.
Both of those issues are on my mind as the new era at Manchester City begins. But the saga of Thaksin Shinawatra at Manchester City has run its course, and so too has the purpose of this blog. The goal here has been to think critically about the implications of Thaksin running City and to explore the complex connections between Thai politics, ethics, football, and fan loyalty that his regime brought to the fore. Thanks to both occasional and regular readers for your comments, encouragement, and criticism. I’m especially appreciative to Thai readers for their insights, and wish all those truly committed to human rights and democracy in Thailand the very best of luck in this extremely difficult time.
Perhaps I’ll have more to say about City and future developments at some point later down the line, but barring something truly extraordinary this will be the final post on this blog. I’m more pleased than not that Thaksin has relinquished control of the team, and while City won’t be the same club so many of us fell in love with going forward, I still to intend to follow the club closely as a supporter. Thaksin has come and gone, oil money (and its own moral ambiguities) has come in, and a whole new universe seems to have opened up. But at the end of the day, once the whistle blows “the crowd will still be roaring, and the shirts will still be blue.”