Jonathan Schofield on the growth of City Football Group and cycling in forests

The City Football Group (CFG) has bought another football club, Lommel SK, which lives in a small town in Belgium on the border with Holland. The timing is a surprise if not the acquisition. CFG collects football clubs around the world like Boris Johnson collects children. 

The involvement of state-vehicles in football to project soft power sticks in the craw of many people

The main focus of CFG is Manchester City, of course, but the company already has a bulging gym bag of teams. Indeed, it claims to be the ‘world’s leading owner and operator of football clubs’ and this little listing seems to back up that claim.

CFG has acquired Manchester City, New York City in the US, Melbourne City FC in Australia, Yokohama F. Marinos in Japan, Montevideo City Torque in Uruguay, Girona FC in Spain, Sichuan Jiuniu FC in China and Mumbai City FC in India.

2020 05 12 Lommel Sk Team
Lommel SK in action

This is what Ferran Soriano, Chief Executive of City Football Group (main picture right), has said of the acquisition. 

“We are excited to welcome Lommel SK to City Football Group and to work together with the fans and the city to develop the Club. Belgium is one of Europe’s best football countries as demonstrated by the success of the national team and the development of world-class players, some of whom we know very well, like Kevin De Bruyne and Vincent Kompany.

“This investment is part of our long-term strategy to be present in key football countries, play beautiful football and develop talent. We were attracted to Lommel’s culture, training facilities and commitment to youth development and we look forward to learning from their approach and helping the Club to evolve in the months and years ahead.”

Bob Nijs, Mayor of Lommel, chipped in with: “Lommel SK is an incredibly important part of our community. In City Football Group we have an ambitious, stable and reliable partner, which is committed to developing young players and will help the Club to grow and succeed in the future. It is excellent news for the Club and for the City.”

2019 06 26 Arena Story Etihad
Manchester City's Etihad Stadium

The timing is interesting because there is no football at the moment in any of the leagues except in Belarus and CFG don’t have anything there – yet. The German League is set to restart at the weekend and maybe the Premier League in June.

More especially the timing is interesting because of the on-going deep controversy over the proposed acquisition of Newcastle United by an arm of the Saudi Arabian administration known as the Private Investment Fund (PIF). Given the Saudi human rights record, especially the linking of the main man of the PIF, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, to the ghastly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, there has been a lot of complaint from human rights groups across the world not least Khashoggi's fiancee. The acquisition of the famous ‘Toon smells exactly like an expressly political move by a sovereign state to project reputation and profile. It smells like that because that is exactly what it is. 

Manchester City and CFG are in the same boat, of course.

CFG are ultimately controlled by the Abu Dhabi United Group, the investment vehicle owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan (main picture left) of Abu Dhabi. The involvement of state-vehicles in football to project soft power worries many fans. The same goes for Qatar’s ownership of Paris St Germain. This isn't football as we knew it. Not that many top-flight English clubs are in a position to complain about the proposed ownership of Newcastle United and the present situation of Manchester City given the tangled international web of corporates who have pocketed most of the Premier League. 

Lommel SK and the local mayor don't seem to mind either. Money talks. 

2020 05 12 Lommek Sk
The main Google pics image of Lommel is of a traffic light with a church in the background...but see the next picture

Back to Lommel in Belgium, a town of 34,000 inhabitants and a second division football club with a ground capacity of 8000. Personally, I want to go to Lommel and I'm not a City supporter. It's the cycling I'm interested in, not so much the town itself, where the first Google-search image was largely of a very attractive traffic light with a church in the distance.

The area is known for the raw material of quartz sand, important for a still extant glass-making industry. Today many of the exhausted former sand pits are nature reserves, one of which is the delightfully named Fietsen door de Bomen, close to Lommel. I love cycling and look at this place. You ride through a forest canopy on a ‘circular cycle path 700 metres long, 100 metres across and rising to a height of ten metres on a gentle 3-4% gradient. The structure is held up by steel pillars designed to blend in with the straight trunks of the Scots pines in the Pijnven forest.’

2020 05 12 Lommel Circles In The Forest
Forget the football, let's spin in the forest

Forget the politics of football. Let’s talk cycling. Lommel fans can have a go at the National Cycling Centre close to the Etihad Stadium and Mancs can cycle up trees. 

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