Istanbul | Manchester City will enter the Champions League final on Saturday as a modern soccer and financial heavyweight compared to Inter Milan.
That is a new twist in the European history of two clubs who have rarely operated at the same level and whose respective status, on and off the field, flipped about 12 years ago.
Inter had the aristocratic, storied tradition and trophies while City was an English third-tier team when crosstown rival Manchester United lifted the iconic European Cup trophy in 1999.
“One is a kind of old nobility,” European soccer consultant Olivier Jarosz told The Associated Press about Inter, “and one comes from a working-class family that has made a nice marriage with money.” Yet both City and Inter were teammates on the failed Super League project in 2021, albeit for different reasons. Loss-making Inter was seeking to avoid being left behind by English Premier League dominance; financial juggernaut City, backed by Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth, didn't want to be left out.
Abu Dhabi's petrodollars have been spent wisely so debt-free City goes to Istanbul for its second Champions League final in three years and fresh from sealing a seventh Premier League title in 12 seasons.
In the same era, Inter went through three owners, racked up record losses, won Serie A just once and did not advance through any Champions League knockout round until this season. Inter failed even to qualify for six straight years.
City's sustained success now sees it with the highest overall and sponsorship revenue of any club in world soccer last year, and the most expensive squad costing about $1.3 billion in total.
Inter earned less than half of City's income of about 730 million euros ($784 million) in 2022 and ran up a loss of 140 million euros, according to UEFA's latest industry analysis.
The entire Inter lineup that started the second leg of its semifinal game against AC Milan cost less in total transfer fees than just one City player — 117.5 million euros ($126 million) record signing Jack Grealish — in the team that dismantled Real Madrid one night later.
“(Inter) are in the Champions League final despite the ownership, and Manchester City are in the final because of the ownership,” Kieran Maguire, author of “The Price of Football,” told the AP on Thursday.
It was very different for most of the 68-year history of what started as the European Cup and became the Champions League.
When Inter last won in 2010, the Nerazzurri had been European champion more often than City had played total games in the competition: three titles for Inter, two games for City.
Inter won back-to-back titles in 1964 and 1965 and reached two more finals in 1967 and 1972. Three UEFA Cup titles also were won in the 1990s when Serie A was still the best, richest and most fashionable league in Europe.
Owned for most of this era by the Moratti family, billionaires in the oil industry, Inter also broke the world record transfer fee four times, including when it signed Brazilian striker Ronaldo from Barcelona.
City's only European Cup adventure lasted two weeks and ended in Istanbul in October 1968, eliminated by Fenerbahce in the first round. The European Cup Winners' Cup title was won the next season, but the club had no serious European status for decades.
A sliding doors season was 2011-12 — a first Champions League campaign in Manchester came three years after the takeover by Abu Dhabi, and was the last in the blue half of Milan for six years.
By 2018, when both were again in the Champions League groups, much had changed. City had just regained the Premier League title, a first coached by Pep Guardiola who was reunited with former executives from Barcelona and built a dominant team in the world's richest domestic league.
“The quality of (City's) decision-making is extremely high,” said Maguire, who described Inter as “a classic case of random, unstructured ownership.” Inter was sold first by Massimo Moratti into the control of Erick Thohir, a former owner in the NBA, and then in 2018 to the Chinese corporation Suning, which installed 26-year-old family scion Steven Zhang as chairman.
Suning is subject to global financial pressures and in 2021 shut down its Chinese club, Jiangsu, months after winning a first domestic league title.
This season, Inter Milan's stretched finances led UEFA to deduct 4 million euros ($4.3 million) from its prize money. The club also paid 6 million euros ($6.5 million) in 2015 for breaking “financial fair play” rules.
City also has two FFP punishments from UEFA — totaling 30 million euros ($32 million) — though evaded Champions League bans in cases related to having too much income, not too little. The club is currently fighting more than 100 charges from the Premier League related to alleged breaches of financial rules.
“For me, they are siblings,” Jarosz, an executive with the LTT Sports consultancy, said of the two finalists. “You really have a very small pool of clubs who have the same financial capacities.” Saturday's game is the third Champions League final since April 2021 and all those finalists since — Man City, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Liverpool, Inter Milan — were Super League members.
For a club to reach the Champions League final from outside the elite budgets of hundreds of millions “does not look possible,” Jarosz suggested. “It's more than luck, it would be a statistical error.”