Narrowing the divide

Narrowing the divide

Uniteds 'poorer' neighbours, Manchester City, are now ready to dish it out on the big stage

City won England’s FA Cup last Saturday. On the same afternoon, United regained the English Premier League title. And on May 28, United opposes Barcelona in the Champions League final.

One community, two clubs and a rivalry that at times bitterly divides work colleagues, neighbours, even families.

The reds of United have won the English league for 12 of the last 19 seasons. The light blues, whose stadium is five minutes down the road, had until Saturday won nothing major in 35 years.

“Thirty-five years of hurt” was the saying.

“United and City: Joined by Geography, Separated by Success” was written on banners and T-shirts that taunted the neighbors. That mockery ended when City won the FA Cup final against Stoke City at Wembley. The only goal was scored with great power and presence by Yaya Toure, a player from the Ivory Coast. He was chosen to play for City by Roberto Mancini, an Italian. His wages, all the wages and all the fresh dreams of City are paid for by the ruling family of Abu Dhabi.

City, the less glamorous club of Manchester, supported for generations by people who proudly distinguished their team as being the underdogs to “moneybags United,” has suddenly become the biggest spender in world soccer.

To challenge its neighbor, and then the rest of England, and then others in the global game, Sheik Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan has thus far spent $566 million.

That spending over two years is only a beginning. Though the sheik was not at Wembley to witness the first real prize his largesse has reaped, his family will not stop now. Not while United is still ahead in the league, not while Barcelona, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Bayern Munich are still the names most synonymous with power in the sport. Yaya Toure reflects the new City perfectly. At 6-foot-3-and-a-half inches, or 1.92 meters, he is an enormous physical specimen for soccer. At 28, he has followed his older brother, Kolo Toure, to the team that pays more than all the rest on earth.

City paid around 24 million pounds for Yaya Toure, who was not even a first choice in the Barcelona midfield. It pays him a reported 10 million pounds a year.

In just two games, Toure has repaid some of that. He shot the winning goal when City defeated United in the FA Cup semifinal at Wembley last month. And in the 74th minute of a rugged, physical and up-to-that-moment scoreless Cup Final, he loped into the Stoke penalty box to strike a historic goal.

It was powerful, precise and instinctively predatory. It won the Cup in the same week that City ensured fourth place in the Premiership, which qualified it for the Champions League for the first time.

Men and women in that Wembley Stadium burst into tears of joy, and almost disbelief. Those who are younger than 45 have no recollection of City’s winning the FA Cup. Those who had journeyed to England’s iconic stadium with their offspring were taking children to an event that was simply beyond their wildest dreams in their own childhood.

No more mocking banners from United. No more inferiority complex in a two-club city. And no more reverse psychology in the City claim that it had to grow its players while United bought them.

“Patience is a virtue,” summed up the new City banners in the crowd.

Impatience, always wanting more, is United’s spur.

Two hours before Toure’s goal, Wayne Rooney had struck the decisive penalty, at the same time on the match clock, the 74th minute, that wrapped up United’s all-time record of 19 English league titles.

Rooney, born in Liverpool, purchased from Everton for a similar sum to the Toure fee, had in midseason haggled for a new deal from United. He, with his agent, had held United ransom in part because they knew how much Toure and others were getting paid, thanks to City’s abundant petrodollars. But with all that resolved, and with some of his form and his undisputed desire to win things in United’s colors restored, Rooney said Saturday that the responsibility to take the penalty had weighed heavily on him.

“It was terrifying standing there,” he said. “just waiting to take the penalty. I had to try to compose myself. The main thing was I knew where I was putting it -- I had been practicing them all week in training.”

His kick was uncompromising, full of raw power, untouchable by any goalkeeper, clean as a whistle. If he really harbored any self-doubt, he could always have handed the soccer ball to Ryan Giggs.

Giggs is the corollary to the United vs City dichotomy. He was coveted by City as a schoolboy, but was persuaded to sign with United instead.

He has had only one team manager, Alex Ferguson, throughout his career, first as an adolescent and then, for the last two decades, as United’s most consistently brilliant player. In all those years, while Ferguson greedily garnered 27 major titles for United -- and while City has hired and fired managers or coaches no fewer than 19 times -- Giggs has shared Ferguson’s successes. “This is what you live for,” Giggs said on the field after winning his 12th Premier League medal on Saturday. “This is why I’m still playing at 37. It just gets better and better.”

In a way, it is Giggs who gets better. He has had to adapt his game, relying less on the pure speed that once was his forte and more on the acquired wisdom of having been there and done it so many times.

If he needs a new stimulus, there is one gathering momentum across the Mancunian divide. “I hope we can improve,” City coach Mancini said, “because there is another step for us next season.”

Two steps, actually: England and Europe.