Man City's South American project could deliver top young stars

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Transport yourself back to summer 2008. The sun is shining, England players are free to embarrass themselves in Ibiza having failed to reach the Euros, Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ has shot to the top of the charts and Manchester City, like usual, are in trouble.

Owner Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted prime minister of Thailand who Human Rights Watch are calling a “human rights abuser of the worst kind”, has been hit with a series of corruption charges. His assets have been frozen, and the club is plunging towards financial catastrophe.

Imagine a friend suggests that a little over a decade later Manchester’s ‘noisy neighbours’ – who finished the previous season just below Portsmouth and Blackburn in the Premier League – will be behind a project to bring “beautiful football” to South America.

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At the same time as City fans are praying for the arrival of a wealthy benefactor to save them from the ignominy, 7,000 miles away in Montevideo a new club is planning its inaugural season in ‘la C’, the bottom tier of Uruguayan football. Club Atletico Torque are an experiment, an attempt by local businessman Raul Aquino to see if he can build a successful side from scratch.

Come back to the first weeks of 2020 and City are one of the most powerful clubs in the world. They are backed by a petrostate – human rights abusers with liquid assets bought out the human rights abuser with frozen ones, as we all remember – and are the flagship enterprise in a group that has spread its tentacles to four corners of the footballing globe.

Club Atletico Torque, meanwhile, have been promoted to the Uruguayan Primera Division for the second time in three seasons and, more notably, have just revealed a brand-new identity. Sky-blue Puma shirt; round badge with that oh-so-familiar typeface; new name: Montevideo City Torque has become part of what City Football Group (CFG) employees refer to as ‘the family’.

On Sunday afternoon, the newly rebranded club will play its first game of the 2020 season against Progreso at the 60,000-capacity Estadio Centenario.

This story is not entirely novel. The CFG, which wholly or partly owns eight clubs across Europe, Australasia, Asia, and Americas North and South, first acquired Torque from Aquino in 2017. They got promoted to the Primera that year, but there were no immediate changes to visuals and no high-profile signings. In 2018, they went straight back down.

Now, though, after two years of waiting, City finally appear ready to throw their full force behind this project. “Aligning the image of [City Torque] with the group’s other clubs allows us to strengthen the City brand in South America and around the world,” said Diego Gigliani, the CFG’s Managing Director of Emerging Clubs, at the January 2020 event to launch the new identity.

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Yet the unveiling was not just about symbolism. More important, certainly in the long run, is the concrete element of this venture, ‘el City Football Academy’, to be built in Montevideo’s eastern suburbs.

The complex will reportedly be designed by the Uruguayan architect Rafael Vinoly, the man behind the Etihad Campus and London’s ‘Walkie-Talkie’ monstrosity. Like the CFG’s developments in New York, Manchester and Melbourne, it will house all the club’s staff and training facilities, as well as the youth academy that Gigliani calls the “cornerstone” of City Torque.

The main aim of having a club in the Uruguayan capital is, despite the corporate jargon, made abundantly clear on the CFG’s official site. “This investment,” it reads, “enables CFG to build on existing connectivity in the country and helps to expand the currently limited options for identifying and developing local Uruguayan and South American talent. It also acts as an administrative hub for City’s pre-existing scouting operations in the region”.

When the academy is finished, one imagines that the facilities will be state of the art. That, combined with Manchester City’s international image, will make City Torque very attractive to the finest young players from the continent’s Southern Cone. The next Sergio Aguero could perhaps arrive in the north west without a transfer fee leaving the CFG’s coffers.

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Already, 20-year-old Chilean Marcelo Allende, who was highly sought after following his displays at the U17 World Cup in 2015 and went on trial at Arsenal the following year, has been added to a squad that mixes experienced heads and talented players in their teens and early twenties.

Uruguayan sportswriter Jorge Senorans wrote recently in El Observador newspaper that, “City Torque present a dangerous team, with a clear idea of play and speedy, fleet-footed youngsters.”

The immediate sporting goal is modest: maintain a place in the top flight before building towards qualification for a continental knock-out competition over the coming years. But Gigliani and Argentine manager Pablo Marini, who has coached top-tier clubs in Mexico, Chile and Argentina, have other priorities.

Firstly, they are adamant about playing “beautiful football”. Marini, talking to El Observador, displayed his admiration for the current Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, with whom he has opened a line of communication. “We try to put on a work of theatre for the people to enjoy,” he said, “and what Guardiola does is marvellous… We always go along with that idea and it is not by chance that we have this style of play.”

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That expansive style, as well as a route to on-pitch success, is about maintaining an image, something that is hugely important to the City Group’s owners. In a recent interview with The Athletic, ex-City executive Garry Cook referred to the club as a “proxy brand for Abu Dhabi”.

To that end, the club will also be investing in community projects in Montevideo. “The creation of a foundation will permit us to have a social impact beyond the pitch,” said Gigliani. “Both the projects [the foundation and academy] are central elements in differentiating the group and demonstrate the long-term commitment we have with the club, the city of Montevideo and the whole country.”

Yet a look at the CFG’s other outfits – Manchester City are champions of England, New York City topped MLS’s Eastern Conference in 2019, Yokohoma F. Marinos won the J1 League in December and Melbourne City are currently second in the A-League – suggests that City Torque will only content themselves with PR-friendly community work and mid-table mediocrity for so long.

Whilst City Torque are scouring the continent for talent, Nacional and Penarol, Uruguay’s traditional big two, will be looking over their shoulders.

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