Manchester City, the UAE-owned megaclub who finished the season as champions of the Premier League and winners of the Carabao Cup, are closing in on their bid to be the first ever team to win the English domestic treble.
But to complete this historic achievement on Saturday and lift the FA Cup, winning the oldest national football competition in the world, they must first vanquish the plucky squad of Watford FC, the Hornets of Hertfordshire.
Manchester City’s ultimate owner, Sheikh Mansour, an Emirati royal and deputy prime minister of the UAE, is one of the wealthiest people involved in world football, with The Telegraph estimating his individual net worth at $17bn. The club itself, with annual revenue in the past year of $635m, according to Deloitte, is the fifth-richest football club in the world.
While the money involved throughout the top flight of English football is eye-watering, there is a clear contrast with the finances of Watford FC (2018 turnover $163m).
It is owned by Gino Pozzo, who lives in Watford, just north-west of London, and is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the club. The Pozzo family fortune came from their Freud tool-making business, sold to Bosch in 2008. Gino’s father also owns Udinese Calcio in Italy, and formerly owned Granada CF in Spain, setting up a structure that allowed the three clubs to exchange players – giving footballers valuable playing time in a variety of leagues while allowing the clubs themselves to shape their squads to the requirements of their domestic competitions.
Watford had a 2018 wage bill of $109m. Manchester City spent $308m on players and staff that year. Watford’s highest ever fee paid for a player was $24m, for Andre Gray from Burnley, in 2017. Manchester City’s current squad, assembled and financed at the cost of more than $1bn, includes 10 players for whom City paid between $47m and $76m.
It’s fair to say Manchester City are a bigger club than Watford.
But Manchester City also face big problems.
Accusations have resurfaced this week that the club seriously misled financial regulators. Clubs are only allowed to spend on their squads in relation to the amount of income received from sponsors, in a bid to ensure a relatively even playing field.
Leaked documents appear to suggest City attempted to get around these financial fair-play rules set out by UEFA, European football’s governing body, by disguising cash payments from a UAE state-backed investment company through artificially inflated sponsorship deals with companies including the UAE airline, Etihad Airways.
“We are innocent until proven [otherwise], I’m sorry,” Pep Guardiola, City’s manager, told reporters ahead of Saturday’s cup final.
The possible sanctions are severe. Manchester City face a one-year ban from European competitions if found to have breached the rules. While it would be a severe blow to the club’s prestige, it would also cost them dearly in terms of lucrative fees received under global broadcasting deals. UEFA shared out $2.3bn in revenues among clubs that participated in 2018’s Champions League and Super Cup competitions.
“If UEFA decide we did something wrong, OK, we’ll be banned, we’ll be punished or whatever they decide,” added Guardiola.
City previously told Sky Sports News the allegations were a “clear and organised” attempt to smear the club’s reputation.
Watford were last in the FA Cup final in 1984, but have never won a major trophy in their 121-year history. Just seven years ago, the club was facing liquidation or administration.
Though clearly the underdogs in Saturday’s FA Cup final, their day at Wembley is being eagerly anticipated. Watford’s main shopping street has been festooned with bunting and balloons. Club flags fly from the town hall, and huge murals have been painted on the sides of houses. Local schools joined in, allowing children to come in on Friday in club colours and make-up, holding special assemblies and sharing songs on social media to support the team. The town mayor has put up a giant TV screen in a local park, another has gone up in the town’s shopping centre.
“Watford’s season, and especially their heroic run in the FA Cup, is a major indicator of the rise in London’s status as a global centre of the game,” football writer Uri Levy told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that such a team, who until not too long ago were seen as the ultimate minnows of the Premier League, are now oozing with quality and style, and are playing with such a high pace is absolutely amazing.”
Manchester City, meanwhile, have lost just one Premier League game this season. It is a remarkable record that shows their dominance. They beat Watford twice, comfortably, 2-1 and then 3-1.
“We know City always have a lot of possession, but people don’t always recognise they have got great width, and I am expecting them to really stretch Watford out wide,” former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson wrote for the BBC website.
“Watford won’t see much of the ball, and I don’t see them creating many chances,” he added.
But most pundits haven’t taken Watford’s talisman into account, counters Uri Levy.
“What gives it the added spice is the leadership of a captain such as Troy Deeney,” he told Al Jazeera. “With an emotional personal story and a lot of character, Deeney is keeping the Hornets’ identity alive.”
The final of the FA Cup, between Manchester City and Watford, kicks off at Wembley Stadium at 1600GMT on Saturday.