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Manchester City fans pour into Istanbul ready to see off ‘City-itis’

<span>Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA</span>
Photograph: Martin Rickett/PA

As they introduced their sky blue shirts to Istanbul’s blue mosque and posed beside a giant cup on Taksim Square, there was a question on the lips of many of the older fans in particular: could this really be the moment they officially vanquish the curse of “City-itis”?

A win on Saturday evening against Internazionale of Italy in Istanbul’s 75,000-capacity Atatürk Olympic Stadium will not only deliver Manchester City their first Champions League – the club’s second piece of European silverware in its 140 year history – but complete what newspapers are duty bound to report as the “historic treble”: a slam-dunk haul of the Uefa Champions League, FA Cup and Premier League title.

Related: How they compare: Manchester United 1998-99 and Manchester City 2022-23

It is a feat achieved only once before by an English side, and that was by their local rivals Manchester United, in the 1998-99 season when City were at their lowest ebb, fighting to get out of the third tier of the domestic leagues.

High on the back of cruising past Arsenal in the league and United in the FA Cup final last weekend, City are far and away the bookmakers’ favourites, and opposing fans generally have a feeling for what is to come.

“We’ve nothing to lose”, said Francesco Camisso, 50, a banker from Milan, as he posed by a giant football on Taksim Square. “We have heart but Manchester City are a very powerful team”, added Stefano Matteo, 27, an electrician, with a shrug.

Yet, the diagnosis by Joe Royle, City manager in the tumultuous 1998-2001 period, of “City-itis”, that fear held deep within the club’s fanbase that if something can go wrong that it will go wrong and that even things that shouldn’t go wrong, still tend to do so, lingered in the humid air of the Turkish city on Friday.

“They don’t remember”, said Chris Danson, 57, an NHS worker from Wigan, pointing to his 29-year-old son Nathan, who had flown in from Vancouver for the match, and his friends.

Joe Royle watches a Manchester City defeat by Ipswich in a Division One match in February 1998
Joe Royle watches a defeat by Ipswich in February 1998, shortly after his arrival as manager. Manchester City would drop into the third tier that year. Photograph: Graham Chadwick/Allsport

City have been allocated 20,000 tickets to Saturday’s final and many of those who came early to enjoy Istanbul said they just want to be finally rid of the doubt. “I think it is fading”, said Tony Cyprys, 60, an IT worker. “The FA Cup win over United helped. I was worried about that.”

City were the dominant club in Manchester in the 1930s but for the best part of seven decades, apart from the odd period of triumph here and there and the satisfaction that came from the reluctant back heel by Denis Law against his old club on the day United got relegated in 1974, they largely lived in the shadow of their glamorous neighbour. City remain the only team to be relegated from the First Division having scored the most goals in a season, and the only side to go down having been First Division champions the previous year.

Fans on Taksim Square spoke of the moment in 1996 when City’s excitable and rather high-pitched manager, Alan Ball, wrongly calculated that a draw with Liverpool would keep his side up, only for the club to be relegated while wasting time and playing keep-ball in the opposition’s corner. The former City striker Niall Quinn has spoken of how the club partly “panicked” in the past by switching their management and even ownership because of the United factor.

There has been much calming balm put on City wounds since 2008, of course, when the club was taken over by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s Abu Dhabi United Group.

The club, awash with cash, have since won seven Premier League titles, three FA Cups and six Football League Cups. By beating United at Wembley last Saturday, City won a domestic double and this has been the 10th season in a row that City have finished above their local rivals in the league. “All through the 90s we would go to the pub in Didsbury and try to avoid the United fans,” said Simon Brain, 61, who was with a bunch of friends who have followed City together for 30 years. “It was just noise. ‘Oh you’re a City fan, hahaha’. Well, they try and avoid us now.”

Manchester City fans pose with the Champions League trophy at a pre-match festival in Istanbul
Manchester City fans pose with the Champions League trophy at a pre-match festival in Istanbul. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The group agreed as one that Liverpool were the real rivals now, a stance that was taken by Sir Alex Ferguson during his management of United that was a cause of much irritation in the blue side of the city.

But the club’s illustrious Spanish manager, Pep Guardiola, has only this week voiced what many a Manchester City fan in Istanbul admit. That to be a “big club” they need to win in Europe.

It could be a truly transformative moment. Completing the treble would see City beat the record for a Premier League club’s annual revenue, with the total surpassing £650m this season and the previous record of £627m set by Manchester United in 2018-19. While United’s Old Trafford remains in dire need of repair, City’s Etihad Stadium a replacement in itself for the old Maine Road, is already expanding, with City having submitted planning permission to expand its capacity to more than 60,000 while adding a hotel and museum.

City’s only previous experience of a Champions League final was in 2021 when they lost to Chelsea in Porto, in Portugal. But Chris Talbot, 60, from Macclesfield, said he had no doubts, and that he for one would not be weighed down by the traumas of the past. He had spent £250 on his flight, £400 on a hotel and £156 on a ticket. “That’s fine, the Cityitis is gone”, he said. “We are the best team in the world. Don’t take this the wrong way: I don’t worry about anybody.”