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The setting was opulent, marble columns, high ceilings, lots of impossibly large settees and bookcases. Someone opened the door — because when you are a sheikh there is always someone to open the door — and Pep Guardiola went in for a hug with the man who has changed the landscape of English football.

The rest of us have never been allowed to get so close. After nearly 15 years as the owner of Manchester City, it has become absolutely clear that Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan prefers to keep his distance.

Some people, usually non-City fans, view that absence through suspicious eyes. The sheikh, they say, cannot be emotionally invested if he has restricted himself to only one game in Manchester since buying the club. And, yes, it is not an ordinary arrangement.

That, however, was not Guardiola’s impression, visiting Abu Dhabi in 2018 and spending time with a man who is estimated to have a personal fortune of £16.8billion ($20.9bn).

Behind one glass-encased cabinet, the sheikh keeps a replica of the Premier League trophy. In the next cabinet, it is the FA Cup, adorned in City’s light-blue ribbons.

If everything goes according to plan, the Presidential Affairs office will soon display the one they want most of all: the Champions League trophy. That was always the masterplan, since buying the club in 2008 from Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Thailand prime minister who had fled his country on corruption charges.

It is not out of the question that the sheikh could turn up at the Ataturk Olympic Stadium in Istanbul when Guardiola’s team will try to round off another year of freewheeling superiority by clinching the treble, but it would be breaking a well-established pattern if he did.

He has, after all, never been to any of City’s previous finals, in any competitions. He has never watched them at Wembley, never been to a Manchester derby and never attended any of the title showdowns that have defined the club’s modern history. It just isn’t his thing.

Does it matter? Should a club owner be present at these occasions? Is it a poor show that a man with his resources chooses not to be there, year after year, when he could fly anywhere in the world by private jet (or even take the super-yacht, Blue, that he bought for a reputed £500million last year and apparently named after his team)?

Many people will answer those questions by saying, yes, why get into the sport if you have no desire to experience, in person, the joys it can bring? Because if you profess to love football but choose not to watch your team in a Champions League final, from the best seats in the stadium… well, do you really love football?

Others will nod cynically and see it as hard evidence that, however it is dressed up, the sheikh’s reasons for buying his way into the Premier League were not about him having the football bug.

Anybody who has followed City’s story since September 1, 2008, will be aware of the argument that, at the heart of everything, the ambition for City’s owners was to use the power of football to enhance what Amnesty International has described as Abu Dhabi’s “deeply tarnished image”.

Those views are so entrenched it is difficult to imagine the sheikh’s presence, or non-presence, would really make any difference at this point.

Nor will it change the fact that, for all the brilliance of Guardiola’s teams, many people find it hard to be overly enthused by City’s success. On the contrary, it might work against City, PR-wise, if the sheikh, or other members of Abu Dhabi’s royal family, started popping up in the directors’ box.

All that can really be said for certain is that, for reasons never officially explained, the sheikh has not attended a City game for nearly 13 years.

The last one was a Monday-night fixture — August 23, 2010 — for City’s first home match of a season that finished with them winning the FA Cup to end a 35-year wait for a trophy.

It was a 3-0 defeat of Roy Hodgson’s Liverpool and, to put it into context, it was so long ago that all but two of the players from Roberto Mancini’s starting XI have retired from playing. James Milner was making his debut for City. Gareth Barry scored the opener, Carlos Tevez got the other two and the BBC’s match report describes Adam Johnson’s contribution as “outstanding”.

That apart, Mansour’s only live experience of watching City came in November 2009, from the royal box at Zayed Sports City, as his team, then managed by Mark Hughes, lost 1-0 in a tour match against the United Arab Emirates national side.

Khaldoon Al Mubarak, City’s chairman, tends to be the face of Abu Dhabi to fans in Manchester, flying in for around a third of their home games. The sheikh does get involved in some of the bigger decisions. Mostly, though, he delegates other Abu Dhabi-based operators such as Simon Pearce, a City director, to oversee the operation.

Speak to people at City and they will say it has never been a problem. The sheikh, they say, watches almost every match at his family residence. City are sensitive to any suggestions that his absence shows a lack of commitment or interest.

Plus, let us not just assume that somebody in his position spends his days congratulating himself on being so extraordinarily rich and never having to work again.

The Gulf News published a profile of the sheikh in March, after his appointment as the UAE’s vice-president, and it was fairly jaw-dropping to see the number of corporations, law authorities, wealth funds, banks, charities and political organisations in which he was the chairman or a leading board member.

Even putting aside, for one moment, his investments in another 50-plus companies — Ferrari, Daimler and Richard Branson’s space tourism programme, Virgin Galactic, among many others — it doesn’t require a LinkedIn page to realise City Football Group (CFG) is a smallish part of a vast portfolio of political and economic responsibilities.

Mansour studied English at Santa Barbara College, California, and obtained a bachelor’s degree in international affairs from the United Arab Emirates University.

He is 52, the same age as Guardiola, and was appointed as Abu Dhabi’s deputy prime minister eight months after City’s takeover. Life is hectic. It can be hard to get to Brentford at home when your day-to-day work involves overseeing an oil company and your country’s sovereign wealth fund, estimated at £799billion.

It would still be an unusual set of circumstances, though, if a football club won the European Cup and the man who made it possible was not in UEFA’s VVIP seats (yes, UEFA does call them VVIPs, rather than just your ordinary VIPs).

The sheikh has never seen the vast training complex that his money bought across the road from the Etihad Stadium, or what City’s home looks like since its expansion in 2015. He has never seen the 7,000-capacity ‘mini-Etihad’, where the youth and women’s teams play.

He has never heard the reassuring thwack when Kevin de Bruyne strikes the ball with the sweetest contact you could imagine. Or felt the surge of electricity coursing through the stadium whenever Erling Haaland bears down on the opposition penalty area.

Nor has the sheikh ventured to a single match involving New York City, Melbourne City, Mumbai City, Yokohama F Marinos or any of the other clubs in the CFG umbrella. Somehow, it is difficult to think that will change soon.

To go back to the earlier question, however, does it really matter?

Talk to people in Manchester and it does not seem to be of great consequence to the vast majority of City fans, most of whom have come to realise that it is just the way it is.

The owner’s name is still emblazoned across the back of many fans’ shirts. The chant of “Sheikh Mansour my Lord” increased in volume when, in their Champions League quarter-final, Bayern Munich’s supporters held up a banner — “Autocrats Out” — that denounced him.

City’s fans have their own banner permanently in place at the Etihad. “Sheikh Mansour,” it says, “Manchester Thanks You”.

They will be grateful again, no doubt, if the Champions League final against Inter Milan goes their way. If so, City will have emulated Manchester United’s treble from 1999, and you still get the feeling they want to keep growing, strengthening the dynasty, making this the norm rather than the exception.

There is already a solid case that, in absentia, the sheikh will end up being the most successful owner, trophies-wise, there has been in the Premier League era.

Yes, none of us can be sure what will happen with the litany of disciplinary charges against City, who are accused by the Premier League of breaking its financial rules. City are determined to defend themselves against the allegations and are confident of doing so. But the punishments, if the case is proven, would presumably be severe.

Even then, however, you have to expect City would still be challenging for titles after any punishment.

Their trophy count under the sheikh stands at seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups, six League Cups, and counting.

Younger fans must think it will always be this way and, in any other circumstances, you could be forgiven for thinking the man who is bankrolling this football juggernaut would like to experience some of the glory for himself.

Not this one, though. That is the way Sheikh Mansour likes it and there is only a small group of people, namely his inner circle, who can say for certain what exactly all this success means to him.

(Main image: Guardiola with Sheikh Mansour in 2018. Photo: Victoria Haydn/Manchester City FC via Getty Images)



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