Into the top 20 we go, featuring high rollers, masterminds and arguably the world's most marketable footballer.
Words: Amit Katwala, Mike Holden, Seb Stafford-Bloor, Michael Yokhin, Alex Hess.
20. Paul Pogba
It was teased for months and years on the back pages, but when Paul Pogba’s return to Old Trafford finally materialised it wasn’t broken by newspapers, or in a club announcement – but in a slick video from Adidas featuring the player and Stormzy.
Bobby Charlton must have been even more bewildered than the rest of us. The return of the Frenchman broke the global transfer record, but Manchester United were buying much more than a strong, technically gifted midfielder – they were buying a phenomenon. Arguably, the fact they let him leave to Juventus in the first place made the 24-year-old even more marketable. Who doesn’t love a good prodigal son narrative?
His performances on the pitch have been solid but unspectacular, having not yet recaptured the form he showed in his last two years at Juventus. The transfer fee was £89m, plus fees, but the value Pogba adds to United’s brand at a time when their traditional dominance has been slipping outweighs that. It’s not just the shirt sales – there are sponsorship deals and endorsements, and a potential influx of new fans.
United are no stranger to the power of star appeal – with the likes of Ryan Giggs and David Beckham they helped to invent the modern, superstar footballer. Along with the hiring of Jose Mourinho, smashing the transfer record was a signal of intent that said, ‘Yes, we’re still one of the biggest clubs in the world’.
It remains to be seen whether Pogba will live up to the hype. From a business point of view, it probably doesn’t matter. AK
19. Ferran Soriano
The former general manager of Barcelona and vice-president to Joan Laporta between 2003 and 2008, Soriano is now the chief executive of three different clubs: Manchester City, New York City and Melbourne City. The City Football Group enterprise under which they all operate was his brainchild, arising from explorative discussions with MLS commissioner Don Garber in the mid-2000s.
A pro-globalisation visionary, Soriano takes much of his inspiration from the Walt Disney business model and approaches football as an extension of the entertainment industry, considering the matchday experience outside the stadium to be equally important as what happens on the pitch. It’s a vision that has come to fruition in Manchester, with the outside perimeter of the Etihad Stadium resembling a theme park on Saturdays or Sundays every other week.
However, it’s the launch of the City Football Academy at a cost of £200m for which Soriano’s reputation in the English game is likely to be judged. At nearly twice the price of the FA’s own equivalent, St George’s Park, and modelled on the strengths of the famed La Masia academy, City will be expected to develop most of the country’s best young talent and launch countless top-level careers in the years to come.
It’s a construction that also paved the way for Pep Guardiola’s arrival, leaving City in a position where there’s no excuses for failing to become the country’s dominant force over the course of his three-year contract. Eventually, they should be setting the benchmark with a team predominantly consisting of players who came through their own ranks. MH
18. Avram and Joel Glazer
Whatever happened to ‘green and gold until we’re sold’? You still see the odd smattering of Newton Heath colours on Old Trafford matchdays, but a decade on, much of the ire that greeted Manchester United’s controversial takeover by the Glazer family has seemingly abated.
After the death of Malcolm Glazer in 2014, the family’s 90% stake in the club was split between his six children, but it’s billionaire brothers Avram (56) and Joel (49) who control things as co-chairmen at Old Trafford. Those three years have been turbulent ones on the pitch for United, but the Glazers have remained a relatively hands-off presence – popping up only occasionally to raise money by selling shares in the club on foreign stock exchanges.
It’s all very different from the early years of their father’s reign, when the vast debt they’d taken on in order to buy the club was blamed for a lack of investment. Now, with sponsorship revenues rising and the club’s position at the top of the global game seemingly untouchable even without Premier League success, fans are more taciturn. There has clearly been investment – it took a while, but the fans got what they wanted with the purchase of Paul Pogba, plus the appointment of a world-class coach in Jose Mourinho.
Clearly, though, as the owners of Manchester United, the Glazers wield huge influence in football at large, even if they do rely on Ed Woodward for much of the daily management of the club. Right now, things seem to be going well – but things can change quickly when your club is a billionaire’s plaything. AK