New York City FC gained another sibling club in a far-off land this week when City Football Group finalized their purchase of a controlling stake in Brazil’s Esporte Clube Bahia for $200 million. That makes it a baker’s dozen clubs for CFG, with 13 teams including NYCFC now a part of the global soccer conglomerate.
The CFG approach–a multi-club model of owning clubs in leagues separated by continents–remains divisive, with some calling it the “future of soccer” and others viewing it as “dangerous” to the sport and its future. Divisive, too, remains the source of all the funding behind this rapid international expansion.
NYCFC wouldn’t exist if not for this controversial multi-club philosophy, nor would it exist without the largesse of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan. The 52-year-old member of the ruling family of Abu Dhabi owns CFG and funds all its efforts, and reportedly has a personal net worth approaching $30 billion.
The Sheikh’s appetite for new teams has not diminished since dropping a $100 million expansion fee to bring NYCFC to life back in 2013. The CFG family is huge now, and while good parents might tell you they have no favorites among their equally-beloved children, that line does not suffice when it comes to multi-million-dollar operations like soccer teams.
Now that there’s a lucky 13th club in the fold, how do all these affiliated teams actually rank within the City Football Group hierarchy? In essence, which team does daddy love the most right now?
This is not a scientific measure of the quality or exact value of all 13 teams now under CFG’s purview. That said, I also did not just completely make up a ranking of all these teams based on vibes. I weighed some specific tangibles: How much CFG paid to buy its stake in each team, FiveThirtyEight’s current global soccer team rankings, the estimated total value of each team’s roster based on TransferMarkt, and a globally-weighted ranking assigned to each team’s league.
The end result is a power ranking of City Football Group’s 13 clubs that hopefully provides an accurate of-the-moment view of the ownership group’s priorities. So let’s officially welcome Bahia into the City Family by figuring out where they rank on this subjective yet pseudo-scientific list of CFG’s current favorite clubs.
The Chinese side became the seventh club to join CFG back in 2019, when they were way down in China’s third division. They’ve spent three seasons in China’s second division, though have yet to challenge for promotion to the top flight, the Chinese Super League, finishing seventh and eighth in back-to-back campaigns. Their roster is valued the lowest of any CFG side on TransferMarket, coming in right around $3 million in total value. While the club no doubt represents an important strategic foothold in China for CFG, they seem like the smallest fish in the group’s ever-deepening ocean.
12. Club Bolívar
The La Paz-based club is considered the biggest team in Bolivia, yet this is the only club listed on the official City Football Group website as a “Partner Club.” What does that mean, exactly? It’s hard to say, but it reads as though the 30-time champions of Bolivia chose the lowest subscription tier offered by CFG, which in turn got them some software and scouting reports. It also, jokes aside, got them a brand-spanking-new City Football Academy, a distinction shared by only a handful of other cities in the CFG empire. Their squad’s reported value on TransferMarkt and that shiny new Academy helped them escape the CFG cellar.
11. Mumbai City FC
The Indian Super League side has been successful since coming under CFG ownership in 2019, winning the ISL’s version of the Supporter’s Shield twice while being crowned champions outright to end the 2020-2021 season. They play in a tiny 8,000-capacity stadium and the Indian Super League remains on the lower end of the global league rankings, hence their spot here near the bottom of the CFG priority list.
10. Lommel SK
CFG became owners of this Belgian team in 2020, though they’ve yet to find a way to get Lommel promoted to the first division. It’s now been five straight seasons of toil in Belgium’s Challenger Pro League, though it’s not like CFG haven’t been trying. There are currently five young players from other European CFG clubs–Manchester City FC, Girona FC, and ESTAC Troyes–on loan with Lommel through the end of this season. It hasn’t been enough to help the team push for promotion, but it’s still interesting to see where some of the young talent in the City pipeline now gets sent to develop. We’re not getting this year’s version of Angelino sent over to NYCFC anymore now that a new option like this one in Belgium is now a part of the CFG setup.
Bahia are the current South American darlings, but they might not be newly in the fold with CFG if not for the trailblazing that took place in Uruguay with the club formerly just called Torque. CFG bought Torque in 2017 as the group’s first entry point to South America, and have since rebranded and revitalized the club. Montevideo City have since been promoted twice to the top division in Uruguay and qualified for Copa Libertadores in 2022. Montevideo is also now home to a City Football Academy, the first one to be built in South America, and their talent pipeline has been beneficial, at least as far as NYCFC is concerned–both Taty Castellanos and Santiago Rodriguez came through Torque on their way to New York.
CFG are only minority owners of this standout squad from Japan’s J1 League, holding only a reported 20% stake while car maker Nissan remains the controlling owner. CFG’s partial buy-in back in 2014 was the first significant foreign investment made in a J1 League club, and it’s been a successful run of late for the team. Yokohama FM has finished within the top two spots of the J1 League table in four of the last five seasons, under the leadership of current manager Kevin Muscat and his predecessor, current Celtic FC coach Ange Postecoglou. Bonus points should be awarded from the NYCFC perspective for being the team that sold Thiago Martins to the Pigeons in their time of need.
Melbourne enjoyed a swift rise once CFG took over. The Australian A-League side has been regularly competing towards the top of the table, finishing as outright Australian champions at the end of the 2020-2021 season. The A-League has a salary cap, yet Melbourne also fielded the most expensive squad in Australian league history back in 2016-2017, which feels very on brand for CFG. Australia’s league is not huge on the international stage, but that doesn’t diminish how dominant Melbourne City have been since coming under CFG’s ownership. Questions are still being asked, however, about the handling of the sale of Australian star Aaron Mooy, which is a relevant part of the financial allegations that still hang over Manchester City almost six years after the transaction.
6. Palermo FC
Italy was uncharted territory for CFG until they completed a takeover of historic Sicilian side Palermo FC for a reported $13.6 million in July 2022. Palermo are the sixth-oldest club in Italy, yet they’ve been seriously wayward and astray since they were relegated from Serie A at the end of the 2016-2017 season. The club were kicked all the way down to Italy’s fourth tier in 2019 after they were declared “insolvent” and said to be plagued by financial irregularities. Palermo and their iconic pink kits have yet to make a serious push for promotion back to Serie A, but they feel like a sleeping giant. Once the CFG synergies are in place and the Sheikh’s checkbooks are opened, it won’t come as much of a surprise to see Palermo back in the Italian first division, nor will it be a surprise to see them much higher on a future version of this CFG club ranking.
5. ESTAC Troyes
France beats Italy in this ranking in part due to seniority, as CFG announced its purchase of ESTAC Troyes back in 2020, compared to a 2022 purchase for Palermo. More pertinent, though, is the fact that Troyes earned promotion to France’s Ligue 1 not long after CFG became owners. Troyes topped Ligue 2 in 2020-2021, and have done just enough to hang on to a spot in Ligue 1 in the intervening seasons. Troyes is not a prime French club in one of the country’s big urban centers–the town is located in the country’s Champagne region, but is not necessarily a huge destination in its own right. That said, Ligue 1 is a significant part of the global soccer stage, and CFG have been quick to leverage their first French club. Manchester City players have gone here on loan, and some of Troyes’s own youngsters have been sent abroad to other CFG clubs like Lommel in Belgium.
They may be No 1 in our hearts, but they seem just right at fourth in this ranking. CFG launched NYCFC with many a splash, dropping the huge expansion fee to start the club, signing big brand-name players during the team’s expansion season, while also talking the talk about building a soccer stadium in New York City. As the years have rolled by since 2015, it’s been mostly good times on the field for the New York branch of the CFG empire. Spending on player signings has slowed, though, with NYCFC run financially like a mid-table Moneyball squad that relies on loans, reclamation projects, and opportunistic development opportunities for uber-talented young players. The soccer stadium talk stayed just that, idle talk, for far too many years. NYCFC would have been in the No. 2 spot on this list circa 2017, but they’ve been usurped by some newcomers. It’s not as though NYCFC are getting the cold shoulder from ownership, as CFG has just committed to spending $780 million in part to finally build a soccer specific stadium for the team. They’ve just been outshined a bit by a few of the new kids on their soccer conglomerate’s block.
Ferran Soriano, City Football Group CEO, thinks my ranking is incorrect. While discussing the purchase of Bahia, with CFG spending a reported $200 million to become controlling owners of the Brazilian Serie A club, Soriano said: “All our clubs, with Bahia it’s 13, all have a story, but Bahia is exceptional for its size. Bahia will be the second biggest club in the group.” So, shouldn’t Bahia be No. 2 on this list? I can’t put them there just yet. They’ve only just regained promotion to Brazil’s ultra-competitive Serie A, and still have tons of ground to make up on the league’s top sides–think Flamengo, Palmeiras, and São Paulo. The upside is obvious, as Sportico values Flamengo at $540 million, while FiveThirtyEight ranks Flamengo at 50th and Palmeiras at 51st in their global club rankings. Bahia already picked up a useful loan player from NYCFC before the City ownership took full control, and it seems obvious there will be more players and more funds pumped in to helping Bahia climb up the ranks in Brazil. They’re the newest kid in class getting all kinds of extra attention from the teacher at the moment.
2. Girona FC
Girona deserves to be this high because they have way outperformed reasonable expectations for a club promoted to LaLiga after spending 12 of its past 15 seasons in Spain’s second division. The relatively small Catalan club has enjoyed a breakout 2022-2023, rising all the way up to eighth in the table with an outside chance at European qualification with only a handful of matches left this season. While LaLiga isn’t a huge revenue-driving cash machine for its non-Barcelona/Atletico Madrid/Real Madrid clubs, a top 10 finish for Girona in its first season back in the top flight would seem to do wonders financially and competitively. When CFG bought in, they did so with lots of talk about renovating Girona’s stadium and facilities and stabilizing the club within LaLiga. CFG certainly pulled all levers possible to help Girona avoid relegation, sending Golden Boot winner Taty Castellanos there on loan, where he was eventually joined by fellow NYCFC MLS Cup champion Alexander Callens, who arrived on a free transfer. CFG poured resources into making sure they had a club stick in LaLiga, and they have to be thrilled at how quickly their investment appears to be paying off.
Was there really any doubt as to who would occupy this top spot? Manchester City is and likely always will be the crown jewel of the whole City Football Group operation. Sportico estimates that the club is now worth $4.4 billion, good for sixth on their new list of the world’s most valuable soccer teams. They play in what’s widely considered the biggest league in the world and are on track to win a seventh Premier League title since Sheikh Mansour bought the team back in 2008. It’s hard to see any team in the CFG family knocking Man City out of this top spot, but I also write this before knowing exactly what punishment might await as a result of the slow-going Premier League investigation into alleged financial misbehavior.