Eighteen years ago, when Istanbul last hosted the Champions League final, Taksim Square in the heart of the city was swarmed by Liverpool fans who spent the day drinking, singing and burning up in the sun before boarding their buses out to the stadium. The fans of Manchester City will create similar scenes, though these days the square looks rather different.
The Monument to the Republic, commemorating the founding of the secular Turkish state by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, still stands at the centre as it has since 1928, but it is no longer the square’s most imposing sight. To the east there is the giant Champions League replica trophy that Uefa sets up to mark its territory in the week of the final. To the west the 65-metre minarets of the Taksim Mosque. A visitor would probably assume the mosque had been there for decades. In fact, construction began in 2017 and was completed in 2021.
In the shadow of the towering new mosque the republican monument looks insignificant, an effect which is quite deliberate. In the 1930s the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid, dreamed of building a gigantic Catholic cathedral on what is now the park at Merrion Square. The new church would tower over the Dáil across the road, in case anyone in there was in danger of forgetting the true order of things.
McQuaid’s dream never worked out, but President Erdogan has succeeded where the archbishop failed. The new mosque’s domination of a public space historically associated with popular protest and the Turkish labour movement shows how power has shifted in today’s Turkey.
At the Ataturk Olympic Stadium on Saturday Manchester City are expected to demonstrate how power has shifted in today’s football. In the season when Qatar hosted the World Cup and Saudi Arabia’s club team qualified for the Champions League, City’s moment is at hand. Watched in person by Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, they have the chance to complete the treble. The achievement would confirm both that they are one of the greatest teams in history and that world football’s new centre of gravity can be found on the shores of the Persian Gulf.
Only one other English team has accomplished a treble, but it’s hard to compare what Manchester United did in 1999 with what City are doing in 2023. United’s path to victory was strewn with close-run-things and near-death experiences, do-or-die struggles with teams who felt like their equals or even superiors.
They played nine matches that season against Bayern, Juventus, Inter and Barcelona – the teams of Effenberg, Zidane, Ronaldo and Rivaldo – with six score draws and three victories. The FA Cup run included a third-round Lazarus act against Liverpool before the epic, season-defining struggle against Arsenal in the semis. They drew four out of eight in the title run-in as the effort of the chase pushed them towards the outer limits of endurance. Jeopardy pursued them all the way to the end, which is why the ultimate outcome felt so miraculous.
City’s story has been different because nobody has been able to give them a game. They have smashed their domestic rivals – 4-1 against Arsenal, 4-1 against Liverpool, 6-3 against Manchester United. They won the FA Cup scoring 19 goals and conceding only Bruno Fernandes’ penalty in the final. They have been untouchable in the Champions League – 4-0 against Sevilla, 7-0 against RB Leipzig, 3-0 against Bayern, 4-0 against Real Madrid. It’s hard to imagine Inter are destined for more than a ceremonial role at tonight’s coronation.
This is a team that includes many of the best players in the world, led by a man who has been the best coach in the world since he started as a top-level coach 15 years ago. More than any individual since his own mentor Johan Cruyff, Pep Guardiola has changed how the game is played and spawned an army of coaching imitators.
Good luck to them keeping up when, unlike so many ideologues, Guardiola continues to evolve. This season, to integrate Erling Haaland, he has overhauled City’s basic shape: a box of four in the centre of midfield has replaced the previous triangle of three. He has relaxed his own absolute prohibition against long balls, accepting that on occasion the early long pass is the right one.
This version of City continues to control games in the classic Guardiola style, but now they also have the best striker in the world, a phenomenon who is first to every ball into the box. The combination presents a problem nobody has yet come close to solving. Against this Inter can muster little but the familiar set of underdog tricks. Hope to drag Haaland into running vendettas with defenders, try to head one in at a set-piece, pray that they score the random chance they get on the counter. They know as well as anyone that the idea of actually outplaying City is inconceivable.
Yet for some reason most of those who sit down to watch Saturday night’s game will be hoping against hope that Inter can find a way. Why? The sight of a team as exceptional as City on the verge of such a historic achievement is usually enough to win people over. It’s not just about Inter being underdogs. Barcelona were not underdogs when they beat Juventus to win their second treble in 2015, but Messi, Suarez and Neymar had the world on their side. Why hasn’t this happened with City?
Part of it is the sheer monotonous lopsidedness of their contests. City have been behind on the scoreboard for a combined 46 minutes in their last 27 matches going back to early February: i.e. they are losing less than 2% of the time. Ernest Hemingway’s theory of bullfighting was that the spectacle became noble and beautiful in proportion to the danger to which the matador willingly exposed himself. In bullfighting terms City are a big blue flying saucer that hovers above the arena and zaps the bulls with a death ray. Most of their matches are about as unpredictable as the goings-on in an abattoir.
Mostly, though, it has to do with how and why the team was built. Is it really so surprising that City are playing a different game from everyone else when they also seem to be playing by different rules? How can the on-field supremacy be separated from the years of state backing, the 115 charges, the perpetual war of litigation?
City are the sum of the combined brilliance of people like Guardiola and Haaland and de Bruyne and Bernardo Silva, but they also represent the untouchability of elite wealth and power and the transformation of the world’s most popular sport – against the will of most of those who follow it – into a vehicle for soft-power plays. On Saturday night they can become the champions our age of state capitalism and managed democracy deserves.