Pressure rises on Manchester City sporting director to sign new star
Those "noisy neighbors" could soon make a few more enemies. Manchester City, so nicknamed by Sir Alex Ferguson in September 2009 after a late Michael Owen winner gave Manchester United a 4-3 victory, was reportedly Thursday preparing a £40m bid to sign Luis Suarez. Last week it was going head-to-head with Barcelona to sign Santos and Brazil forward Neymar.
Liverpool is unlikely to sell its best player, even if it is being offered nearly twice what it paid for him two years ago. But, just as with the Neymar dossier, City's alleged interest focuses attention on its new sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, recently employed by its new chief executive, Ferran Soriano. Both men made their reputations at Barcelona, and already have denied reports that they have approached their former club to inquire about Cesc Fabregas, Sergio Busquets, 17-year-old striker prospect Jean-Marie Dongou and another club director, Raul Sanllehi.
The Spanish press believes Barcelona already has Neymar in the bag, given that its latest accounts included a future payment of €40 million for "an unmovable and intangible asset," of which €10 million has already been paid, thought to represent the star forward. This deal, and City's quest to disrupt it, is about more than finances, though: it is about power, politics and the English champion's quest to "Barcelona-tize" its club.
Begiristain divides opinion in Spain. A former winger, he played alongside Pep Guardiola and under Johan Cruyff in Barcelona's 1992 European Cup-winning Dream Team. His official title at Barcelona was "technical secretary" -- not, as has been reported, director of football or sports director -- and he was already at the club when Joan Laporta became president in 2003.
He did play an important role in the appointment of Guardiola as Barcelona coach in summer 2008, but he did not come up with the name of Guardiola, as has been suggested. The first man to do that was Evarist Murtra, an advisor to the club at the time; what Begiristain did that was invaluable was rule out the candidacy of Jose Mourinho. This dramatic period in Barcelona's history is brilliantly captured in Graham Hunter's book, "Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World," where the clearest thing that comes through is that everyone wants to take the credit for it.
Begiristain traveled to Lisbon in early 2008 with vice president Marc Ingla, and they met Mourinho individually and together, and were impressed with his detailed plans for the club; but it was Mourinho's refusal to stop his polemics, his public mischief-making, that turned him off. This was not the Barcelona way, and not the direction Begiristain wanted for the club. Both Ingla and Begiristain told Soriano that Mourinho was not the right fit (a decision vindicated when, in his first season at Real Madrid, Mourinho went to war with Barcelona, with attacks that the Catalan top brass believe was out of revenge for being overlooked for the job).
That shouldn't count against Begiristain, though. After all, Cruyff was also an important figure during that time, advising Laporta to go with Guardiola as well. Begiristain is seen as a Cruyff man and cynics have suggested he was placed at Barcelona only to be the Dutchman's eyes and ears at the club, and specifically to keep an eye on Sandro Rosell, who was Laporta's running mate before they fell out; Rosell has since returned to the club as Barcelona president but remains an enemy of Cruyff.
Begiristain was not a key driver in the signing of Barcelona's biggest players during its period of success. Lionel Messi was already there, Ronaldinho was a Rosell signing, and Samuel Eto'o a Laporta one. But Begiristain did oversee some important deals, including Seydou Keita (€9 million), Dani Alves (€35 million) and Alexander Hleb (€15 million). He had been accused of being Cruyff's puppet and criticized for speaking to radio stations during halftime at Barcelona games.
"Txiki did an awesome job at Barcelona, but it is impossible to copy Barcelona," Cruyff told the Spanish press last week. "Maybe in 10 years everyone will want to copy Manchester City's style. You'll have to see how Txiki works with [Mancini], all I know is that they want to strengthen their grassroots [development]."
The question for Manchester City fans is not so much whether Begiristain can lure Guardiola to the Etihad (the consensus is that Cruyff, who met Guardiola in New York recently, would be more likely to influence his protégé than Soriano or Begiristain) but if the new sporting director can land a big name in January: Neymar appears impossible (although causing Rosell a headache would have its benefits) while in response to Thursday's reports, City has claimed no interest in Suarez.
Mancini was furious last summer that his two main targets, Robin van Persie and Eden Hazard, moved to title rivals Manchester United and Chelsea, respectively. Those moves proved decisive, as both players have been excellent at their new clubs, while City has struggled for creativity and goals this season (20 in its first 11 games compared to 39 last year). Brian Marwood paid the price and has been demoted to Football Administration Officer, with Begiristain taking his place.
The word from Barcelona is that it is not worried by City's interest in Neymar. Santos won't be, either: if he does not move to Barcelona in 2014, according to newspaper
"The friction between City and Barcelona could become classic in the next few weeks," wrote the Catalan paper, "especially when the bad relationship between Rosell and Soriano becomes known."
Begiristain will also act as Soriano's lightning rod at City. If the English champion does not sign Neymar or Suarez, it will be no great surprise. But if the club does not sign a star before too long, it will be Begiristain, and not Soriano, who will feel the heat.