Ben Lyttleton: Questions follow Ferran Soriano to Manchester City - Sports Illustrated

Questions follow Ferran Soriano to Manchester City

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Ferran Soriano tells an interesting story about Barcelona's recruitment strategy before he was appointed to the board of president Joan Laporta in 2003:

The Spanish club had just signed two young Brazilian players, Geovanni and Fabio Rochemback, for a combined €30m, and Soriano asked one of the club directors why, after a terrible record of recent transfers, they had paid so much. He was told that Barcelona "was owed a good move on the transfer market" after a run of bad luck. Soriano was not impressed, and made the point that successful recruitment has nothing to do with luck.

The story appears in Soriano's book, The Ball Doesn't Go In by Fate: Management Ideas in the World of Football, an interesting read that was published after his 2008 departure from Barcelona, where he was named vice-president in 2005. By then, the club was just about to embark on the most successful era of its history, and there is no doubt that Soriano played a key role in that. That is why Manchester City last week announced his appointment as the club's new chief executive, a role he takes up at the end of this week.

Given that Soriano was one of five vice-presidents working under Laporta at the time, it's hard to know the exact elements of success to which he contributed. City's breathless press release claimed that, "Ferran led and managed the Club's turnaround from revenues of €123m and losses of €73m to €308m revenue and €88m cumulated profit within five years."

These figures seem slightly confusing: after all, the club's treasurer, Javier Faus, revealed on his appointment in 2010 that an audit which declared a €9m profit by the previous regime was actually an €80m loss. So are City's figures from before or after that audit? And Professor Jose Maria Gay de Liebana of the University of Barcelona, in a 2010 study, placed Barcelona's debt level at €578m, which would explain that year's syndicated loans worth €155m once new club president Sandro Rosell had taken over.

Soriano was certainly responsible for many good things that happened at Barcelona during his time at the club, but was there ever really a "turnaround" in the club's finances?

So, what did he do?

Well, Graham Hunter, author of Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, says that Soriano was the brains behind Barcelona's sponsorship deal with Unicef, a move he described as "a stroke of genius... It was new, fresh, interesting and laudable."

It also gave Barcelona a global reach (even if, by the club paying Unicef for the privilege, it lost up to €30m per year in sponsorship deals) and helped push the modern vision of Catalan identity that the club, through its players and philosophy, was promoting. Soriano was also part of the brain trust behind the appointment of Pep Guardiola, overseeing the work of Marc Ingla, another vice-president, and Txiki Begiristain, who interviewed Jose Mourinho for the post, but felt he was not a comfortable fit with the club. (At least, that's the version of the story they tell us now.)

Yet to call Soriano an unqualified success at Barcelona would be wrong. He was criticised in 2004, when Barcelona failed to meet a single condition set by the Chinese government in negotiations to have 'Beijing 2008' as a shirt sponsor. He was also alleged to have been part of the board that sanctioned €2m spent on surveillance of four other vice-presidents suspected of plotting against president Laporta. He resigned before Laporta had a vote of no-confidence against him following the scandal.

Soriano was named president of airline Spanair in 2009, but the global financial crisis forced the company into liquidation in January 2012. While some have said Spanair would have gone bust long before without Soriano, he was also blamed for failing to bring in investment. "We thought he might bring some investors, either domestic or foreign, but in the end he didn't bring in anything," one board member told Spanish paper El Confidencial.

When Soriano joined Barcelona in 2003, the club had gone four years without a Spanish league title and eleven years without the European Cup. City, at least, is further down the road to success, at least on the pitch, and Soriano has clearly been brought in to implement the next phase in expanding the club's global brand.

City is building a formidable unit off the pitch as well as on it: John Williams, the former Blackburn chairman, is part of the football operations team, and last week, Tom Glick, the highly-rated former Derby County chief executive, started his new job as Chief Commercial and Operating Officer.

They may not have read Soriano's book yet (it comes with two very positive testimonials on the cover, from Lionel Messi and Johan Cruyff), though they would probably concur with one other point that stands out. Soriano refers to research conducted by Soccernomics author Professor Stefan Szymanski and agrees that, "the teams that win are the ones that pay the biggest salaries."

City is already top of that particular league table; now they just have stay atop of the Premier League as well.