Sometime over the next few months, Pep Guardiola and Manchester City are expected to officially announce their union. “Expected" because there has been no formal announcement, though both sides have dropped enough hints for football observers to put two and two together. If it does happen, it will bring together almost limitless wealth, in the form of Manchester City’s owners, the ruling family of Abu Dhabi, and the most vaunted coaching CV of this, and arguably any, era. If it does happen, the football world had better watch out.

Yet for City, and their owners, Guardiola is only one cog—though perhaps the biggest and most important—in their ultimate ambition: becoming a great club. Actually, becoming the biggest club on the planet. Bigger than their neighbours, bigger than Bayern Munich and Juventus, bigger even than Real Madrid and Barcelona.

What makes a club great? “Greatness" is distinct from “successful", in that mere accumulation of trophies does not necessarily make a team, or a player, great, not at the global level City are aiming for. There are subjective elements involved too, a degree of emotion, of romance, attached that separates the stellar from the merely statistical. The Dutch national team of the 1970s never won anything, but it won hearts; it was the same with Brazil’s 1982 World Cup side, acknowledged as the best side never to win the world cup.

The four most recognized football clubs in the world today have all had enormous football success, of course, but all that silverware was wrapped in a unique context. In the case of Manchester United, it was the Munich air disaster in 1958, which wiped out potentially the best British football team ever, and the club’s phoenix-like rise 10 years later. That made United a world name and kept it alive even through the dark days of the 1970s; the more recent successes have only added to the identity. Liverpool have fallen on relatively hard times, but their red jerseys are still famous thanks to their exploits in the 1970s and 1980s, when they set the standard for consistency and excellence. Real Madrid invented the Galacticos concept long before the word had been thought of, dominating European football in the 1950s like no other team before or since. Barcelona have come closest to that; their success is relatively new, the time span relatively short, but a combination of Lionel Messi, the shrinking world and social media ensures that the blaugrana jersey is found in almost every playground across the world. All these clubs had one common factor: incredibly stylish football, attacking, with plenty of goals. That’s what won over the neutrals.

Not just football, almost every truly global sporting brand has had one catalyst that changed its fortunes. The New York Yankees benefited from the “Curse of the Bambino"—their rise can be traced to 1920, when the Boston Red Sox sold their star player Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. According to legend, the sale was to help finance the team owner’s Broadway stage productions. Before that sale, the Red Sox had won five World Series titles; their next would come after 84 years (hence the curse). Before that sale, the Yankees had never won a World Series title; in the next 84 years the Yankees won 26 World Series titles and their NY logo is instantly recognizable even in countries that know nothing of baseball. Ferrari were a moderately successful Formula One team when they hired Michael Schumacher in the mid-1990s; in the next decade he gave them six Constructors’ Championships while helping himself to five drivers’ titles, making a famous name—and the prancing horse logo—legendary and universal.

Or take the West Indies, till recently every neutral’s favourite cricket team on the strength of their 1970s show—not so much the success, though it helped, but the swagger and style of their star players and the broader political and cultural statements they made. Australia have since replaced them in the record books, but not in the hearts of the average cricket fan.

That is what City want to avoid; their money can buy them every trophy, but can it win over hearts and minds? Well, they have a multi-point plan to achieve their goal. It began a few years ago, shortly after the sheikhs of Abu Dhabi bought the club. First, they began restructuring their youth academy, to ensure a steady supply of in-house talent. At the time, their neighbours, United, had the best academy among the top clubs in England; today, City’s is yards ahead, so much so that it hosts the children of several United players. Their next was even more significant and revealed another aspect of their long-term thinking. In late 2012, City hired Ferran Soriano as chief executive officer and Txiki Begiristain as director of football. Both had been in top positions in Barcelona, closely involved with their growth and, especially in Begiristain’s case, working directly with Guardiola.

Next step, increasing the global footprint, with the club’s owners, the City Football Group, investing in teams in the US (New York City FC, intriguingly, with the Yankees) and Australia (Melbourne City). Eyebrows were raised last October when Chinese President Xi Jinping included a visit to Manchester City’s stadium, and watched a training session, on his state visit to the UK. A few months earlier, his government had announced a 50-point programme aimed at turning China into a powerhouse. The pieces fell into place a few weeks after Xi’s visit when a Chinese investment house, China Media Capital, bought a 13% stake in City Football Group—enabling arguably the world’s wealthiest football club to enter potentially the biggest football market. On a visit to Bangkok last year, I was a bit mystified to see locals wearing the jerseys of Premier League club Leicester City—till I realized that the club’s owners were Thai. That’s the kind of loyalty Manchester City hope to cash in on.

The stage is set for Guardiola, the alchemist who can make magic with Manchester City. There is still a chance he’ll say no. If there’s one person in football who is bigger than this, it’s Guardiola. But if he does indeed join City, it could be game over for the rest.

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Espncricinfo.

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