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Sunday, May 19, 2024

How Omar Berrada – a ‘college dropout’ – became one of football’s most respected executives

To understand just how highly Omar Berrada was regarded at Manchester City, you just need to know the names of the men he appeared to destined to replace.

“Omar has been at City even before Ferran Soriano and Txiki Begiristain landed there”, said a former City employee, who — like many contacted for this article — asked to remain anonymous in order not to compromise their current jobs. “But if, before yesterday, you asked anyone at the club who had the capacity to potentially replace them, Berrada would have been the answer.”

That is why the news that Manchester United had managed to lure Berrada away from their near neighbours, as The Athletic exclusively revealed on Saturday evening, has caused such a stir in boardrooms across the Premier League.

Berrada is not simply another faceless executive who will quickly be forgotten when he makes the short journey across town in the summer. More than one person The Athletic has spoken to since the news was confirmed has described it as a potential gamechanger from United’s perspective.

“He is a good, clean operator,” stated a former Premier League chief executive, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “He isn’t the biggest character in the room, but is organised and knows the details.

“He is calm in pressure situations and isn’t just well versed in football, he has a brilliant understanding of business. You always got the sense he was ambitious and wanted to be the main guy somewhere.”

Omar Berrada and club ambassador Mike Summerbee pay tribute to the late Leicester chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images)

That may well be true but Berrada’s ascent to the top of his profession was not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

Born in Paris to Moroccan parents, Berrada was raised in the United States before moving to Barcelona when he was 18 after dropping out from university.

“My first university experience was in the US but only for six months,” Berrada said in a 2021 interview with EU Business School, the college which would see him graduate in Business Administration in Spain. “I was going to do an engineering degree at a university in Massachusetts but I decided that it wasn’t for me. So in the middle of the school year, in December, I decided to leave and change. All I knew is that I wanted to go to Europe.”

Berrada had his eyes set on a move to Barcelona because of football — he was a massive Barcelona fan. But before getting into the industry, he started working at telecommunications company Tiscali, where he met his current wife, and also found the platform which would launch him into football.

FC Barcelona hired Tiscali Spain’s CEO as chief marketing officer, and he decided to take Berrada with him to the club. ”I probably would have accepted to join Barcelona for free, so I was lucky they offered me a salary,” he joked in that 2021 interview.

He threw himself into life in the city, beginning Catalan lessons on his second day in the job (one of four languages his LinkedIn profile says he can speak, along with English, French and Spanish).

Berrada stayed there until 2011, meaning his time at the Camp Nou overlapped with the likes of Pep Guardiola, Begiristain and Soriano. However, none of them knew at that point who Berrada, who eventually became Barca’s head of sponsorship, actually was. That would have to wait until they were all reunited at Manchester City.

A theme of Berrada’s career has been a determination to challenge himself to — as he puts it — get out of his “comfort zone”. It is what drove him to move to Europe as a teenager and, ultimately, to leave his beloved Barca to join City in 2011 (Soriano and Begiristain would arrive a year later) after being approached by a London-based headhunter.

“I wanted work in the Premier League,” he said. “It was very attractive. I still don’t know how I persuaded my wife to exchange the Barcelona weather for the UK weather but somehow I did.”

Initially, Berrada led the International Business department of the club, where his main role was to organise City’s preseason summer tours and manage regional partnerships. Back then, the club was not the global powerhouse it is today — certainly not compared to his previous employers in Catalonia. A first league title since 1968 was still a year away from being claimed and European success felt like a distant dream, a fact underlined by Berrada’s struggle to get deals done in those early days at the Etihad.

”When I first arrived at Manchester City, some brands wouldn’t even open the doors to us,” he recalled. “So I had to get a lot more creative and work out how to approach them.”

Within a year at City, he got promoted to Director of Partnerships — which is when he began working more closely with Soriano — and the arrival of Guardiola in 2016 would prove a turning point in his career.

Berrada moved from London to Manchester in the same year as Soriano decided to appoint him as the club’s Chief Operating Officer. “Since that moment, he was seen inside the club as a sort of right hand for Soriano,” said one of his former colleagues at City.

He was placed in charge of City’s daily activities which Soriano, because of his role as the CEO of the whole City Football Group, could not fully cover. Berrada was at the same level as all the club’s various heads of department — such as marketing, commercial and media — but, again, that did not take long to change. His closeness to Soriano meant that Berrada was also asked to help the sporting director Txiki Begiristain in some of his duties on player signings.

(Left to right) Manchester City CEO Ferran Soriano, chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak, manager Pep Guardiola and director of football Txiki Begiristain (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the first transfers in which he was publicly recognised as playing an active part was Aymeric Laporte. He was on board the private jet that brought the Spanish centre-back to Manchester in January 2018 and helped close out the final contract talks with the footballer’s entourage.

Berrada’s importance to City was expanding at a rapid rate to the point where he was asked to become a leader inside the football operations department. He took over as chief football operations officer in 2020, a far more significant switch than the addition of just one more word to his job title might suggest.

It meant Berrada took a step away from the business side of the club to get closer to football. He had already earned Begiristain’s trust inside City and was acting as another asset into luring new players in.

“Begiristain has always worked within a similar structure throughout his career when it comes to luring new players in,” one of his former colleagues explained to The Athletic. “He would be in charge of the football talk, let the player and his agent know how they would fit straight into the project, answer any tactical question and why the deal made sense.

“Once this was pretty much agreed, talks would jump into a second man who would sort out the contractual side. At Manchester City, this was now Berrada. He would know everything about the salary scales in the squad, what they could spend on a signing and could not, all those sorts of things.”

There have been multiple examples of how Berrada and Begiristain worked as a double act in City’s approach to top signings. In February 2022, they both travelled to Monaco, where football agent Mino Raiola was battling terminal illness, to start talks over the signing of Erling Haaland.

Over the last few years, every time a new signing from City had finished their formal presentation and unveiling, the day would come to an end with a dinner at Manchester city-centre restaurant Tast Catala, partly owned by Soriano and Guardiola. Berrada was one of the figures, alongside Begiristain, who was always present at those dinners to welcome new players.

One meal where Berrada was absent was the one where City celebrated their FA Cup success over United at Wembley in June. Instead, he was busy trying to set up a dinner date with Ilkay Gundogan’s uncle at Tast Catala.

His mission was to make a final attempt to secure a contract extension for the German midfielder — a rare example of Berrada being unable to achieve his objective, even though there were no recriminations within the club.

Omar Berrada tried to persuade Ikay Gundogan (right) to stay at City in 2023 (Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

“Omar (Berrada) knows what’s the best offer we can place at every moment,” a club source revealed to The Athletic last June. “If with what he offers we can’t convince a player to stay here, it is what it is. We’ve done our best.”

It will not have surprised City executives that Berrada was considered an elite asset for any sports organisation in the world. The Athletic reported last May that he had been approached by NFL franchises, although Berrada — widely deemed to be personable, curious and remarkably lacking in ego, despite his achievements — remained determined to stay at the club.

He has been ambitious throughout his career at City — and possibly the next role for him at the club would have been the one currently occupied by Soriano.

Instead, he has chosen to once again drag himself out of his comfort zone and be part of INEOS’ mission to overhaul Manchester United, a role that will bring more public scrutiny and a higher profile.

He is already getting a taste of what this entails. Within minutes of his move being announced, historic tweets had been unearthed on social media of Berrada playfully poking fun at his new employers.

Leaving City was not an easy decision for Berrada, who was genuinely torn over leaving a club that has come to be regarded as best in class for its off-field operation. City, too, are sad to see him leave, even if they remain confident that their football department can absorb the blow.

There is no disputing the scale of the task that Berrada is facing at United. But if his career to now is any guide, it is not one that will faze him.

Additional reporting: Dan Sheldon

(Top photo: Mike Egerton/PA Images via Getty Images)

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