Manchester City have become an extremely dominant force within England over the past decade. The 2022/23 Premier League trophy was the men's side's fifth league title in six years, a remarkable accomplishment that reflects just how much of an impact legendary head coach Pep Guardiola has had since his arrival in 2016. Meanwhile in Europe, the team finally got their hands on the elusive Champions League trophy last season, their quality underlined by dominant wins over Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Inter Milan, and more.
However, the ambitions of Manchester City and their owners go far beyond the football pitch. They've also made headlines for a high-profile multi-club ownership scheme that is helping to set a new precedent for how to run multiple football teams under one umbrella. The umbrella in question is the City Football Group, and in this article, we'll be providing you with a detailed guide to exactly what this group is all about.
We'll explain the history and origins of the City Football Group, the reason it was established, and how it has expanded over the years, ultimately explaining how Manchester City slot into the wider City Group network and considering what that means for football more broadly.
City Football Group Limited (often abbreviated to CFG) is a UK-based holding company that administers professional football clubs. Linking together a network of clubs that starts with Manchester City, the holding company is owned by the Abu Dhabi United group who own the Premier League champions.
Alongside the Abu Dhabi investors (who are the 81% majority shareholders), the company is also part-owned by the American firm Silver Lake (18%) and Chinese firms China Media Capital and CITIC Capital (who own 1% of shares).
The group's name comes from Manchester City Football Club, the flagship club and parent company of the network; however, CFG has expanded well beyond the city walls of Manchester. Today, there are clubs in the United States, Australia, India, Japan, Spain, Brazil, Uruguay, China, Belgium, France, and Italy that have stakes owned by the City Football Group. Things weren't always like this though; let's take a lot at how the group has grown over the years.
City Football Group was founded in 2013, five years after Sheikh Mansour's 2008 takeover of Manchester City. Named after Mansour's flagship club in northwest England, the enterprise was the brainchild of former Barcelona Economy Vice President Ferran Soriano, who was appointed CEO of Manchester City in late 2012 to replace Garry Cook. On appointment, he was tasked with creating a global football business entity of significant stature.
Initially, Soriano had wanted to launch a similar project based around Barcelona, creating a Barca-linked MLS franchise in collaboration with MLS Commissioner Don Gaber. However, this idea never got over the line, largely because Soriano and several other members of Barcelona's board ended up resigning from the club in protest of President Joan Laporta's leadership. Taking the reins at City offered Soriano a new opportunity to realise his ambition, and he soon got to work.
The first part of this new vision was announced in December 2012, when it was revealed that Manchester City would be the new owners of the 20th team in the newly expanded Major League Soccer, with New York City FC joining the MLS officially in 2015. The group also made moves within Australian football around the same time, acquiring a controlling stake in A-League franchise Melbourne Heart and rebranding the club as Melbourne City FC to match the unified 'City' vision of the project (CFC also changed both these clubs' badges and club colours to sky blue in an effort to align with the project's flagship side).
CFG then began stretching out into women's football, launching a successful bid to get their newly-rebranded Manchester City Women's FC into the top tier of the Women's Super League; meanwhile, CFG were also expanding into Asia, with a 20% stake bought in Japanese club Yokohama F Marinos. These moves reflected the ambition of the ever-growing project — so how many clubs are there integrated into the CFG network in 2023?
In total, there are now 12 clubs owned by City Football Group, located in countries all over the world. City's owners have expanded into North America, South America, Asia, and Australasia, and they've also strengthened their hold on Europe by investing in clubs in Spain, Italy, and France. Most of the clubs under the CFG banner compete in the top flight of their respective countries, although there are also teams further down the pyramid, particularly the more newly-acquired clubs who are now in the process of working their way up the divisions (largely thanks to cash from Abu Dhabi).
Below, you'll find a list of all the clubs that operate under the CFG umbrella, as well as some basic details regarding each takeover.
Acquired: 2013 (when CFG was founded)
League: Premier League (United Kingdom)
Stake Owned by CFG: 100%
League: Major League Soccer (USA)
Stake Owned: 100%
League: J-League (Australia)
Stake Owned: 100%
League: Uruguayan Primera Division (Uruguay)
Stake Owned: 100%
League: Ligue 1 (France)
Stake Owned: 100%
League: Belgian First Division B (Belgium)
Stake Owned: 99%
League: Indian Super League (India)
Stake Owned: 65%
League: La Liga (Spain)
Stake Owned: 47%
League: China League One (China)
Stake Owned: 29.7%
League: J-League (Japan)
Stake Owned: 20%
League: Serie B (Italy)
Stake Owned: 80%
League: Campeonato Brasiliero Seria (Brazil)
Stake Owned: 90%
The purpose of City Football Group is to create a large network of sporting organisations that are able to operate in a mutually beneficial way, under the same broad banner. As the founder club and the institution that gave CFG its name, Manchester City represent the top of the food chain, with the other clubs slotting into the multi-club ownership structure below them.
This multi-club model creates opportunities for young players to gain experience at feeder clubs in loan deals, and it makes clubs within the same ownership structure able to communicate smoothly between each other and reap the rewards of smart player and staff recruitment across the CFG landscape. This idea of player sharing is a core principle of CFG, with the group advertising that its combined knowledge means it has extensive information on half a million players around the world.
The ties between clubs were perfectly utilised in 2014, when Melbourne City star Aaron Mooy was signed directly from Australia to Manchester City (he's been playing mostly in the UK ever since). There are a number of other examples of players moving around between different City clubs, too/
This aspect of the City Football Group could be compared with the Red Bull model, which sees clubs such as RB Salzburg and New York Red Bulls develop players before selling them on to clubs higher up the Red Bull food chain, primarily RB Leipzig. In the early days of the City Group project, high-profile players like Frank Lampard brought attention to the scheme by jetting off to the States to play for New York City, before being loaned back to Manchester City in the Premier League, a perfect encapsulation of the fluidity of player movement in this system.
The business model developed by CFG has undoubtedly fuelled success on the pitch; since the group's establishment, Manchester City Men have been far and away the most decorated side in the CFG roster, securing six league titles, two FA Cups and six league cups, as well as a much-coveted Champions League. City's women's team have also been extremely successful in recent times, winning one Women's Super League trophy, three FA Cups and four FA WSL Continental Cups.
Across the pond, New York City have won an MLS Cup, while in Australia Melbourne City have also won a large number of domestic trophies. Various other City-backed clubs across the world are currently competing at a high level, and the investment and business planning of CFG is evidently a major factor behind it.
The increased presence of multi-club ownership groups in the professional game is a trend that doesn't seem to be going away; however, it's important to note that there has also been significant opposition to the City Group project and other multi-club ownership models pursued across the world in recent years.
A number of Palermo fans protested against City's takeover of the Italian club in 2022, but ultimately the move was forced through regardless. Meanwhile, an ESPN article published last year questioned whether football is ready for a "business model in which players are deployed like middle managers across a vast conglomerate".
The article also explored how criticism of City Football Group will generally relate to the enormous sums of money being spent, with total investment reportedly exceeding $2 billion; this kind of lavish investment led former Liverpool CEO Peter Moore to say of the vastly wealthy multi-club model: "It is ripping the soul out of what we're all about a little bit."
These criticisms will not sway those involved with CFG, of course, and there are some other significant organisations on a similar path. The most prominent other multi-club establishment is probably the aforementioned Red Bull franchise. The energy drink company's role in global sports stems back to their 2005 takeover of Austrian side Salzburg; today, flagship Bundesliga side RB Leipzig are fed not only by the Austrian club, but also by Red Bull clubs in New York and Brazil.
A consistent playing style, fluid recruitment, a hierarchical structure and strong branding have made the project a huge success. You can find out more about the Red Bull Franchise and its philosophy here.
Given the success of the Red Bull project in recent years, it would hardly be a surprise to see more and more global corporations dip their toes into the world of football ownership. And at Manchester City, the efficacy of a model like this is there for all to see. Just look at their glittering trophy cabinet, or the state-of-the-art new Etihad Campus Training Ground, and it's impossible to deny how effectively their riches have been invested.