A UK billionaire and the Qatari state will do battle to buy the world’s fourth richest football club.
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A UK consortium led by British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, and a member of the Qatari Royal family, Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad J.J. Al Thani, have both submitted bids to buy Manchester United. The asking price of United’s American owners – the Glazer family –is around€5.5bn, but if the two parties enter a bidding war the price could reach €7bn.

United fans have hated the Glazers since they took over the club in 2005 and will be delighted to be rid of them. The Glazers paid around €900m to buy United, borrowing most of the money. They then put all the debt on the club’s accounts, using United’s revenue to pay back the loans and pay themselves around €170m in dividends over the years. Anger with the Glazers has grown as the team has underperformed since legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, despite spending more than€1.2bn on players and appointing high-profile managers such as Jose Mourinho and Louis van Gaal.

For their money, the new owners will acquire the fourth richest football club in the world, with annual revenues of €660m, behind only Manchester City, Real Madrid and Liverpool. They will also own an improving team under a promising manager Erik ten Haag. In February 2023,United won the League Cup, their first trophy since 2017. The new owners will also inherit around €585m of debt, which the Glazers want paid as part of the deal, and a bill of at least €1bn to redevelop United’s stadium, Old Trafford. The so-called ‘Theatre of Dreams’ badly needs a facelift.

Heading the UK bid, Jim Ratcliffe owns petrochemicals giant Ineos. He is the UK’s richest man, with an estimated fortune of €24bn and owns top cycling team Ineos and a significant stake in Mercedes Formula 1.But compared to the €400bn wealth fund of Qatar, Sir Jim looks poor. The limitless investment in United made possible by Qatari money makes them the favourites.

Human rights groups, along with many football fans, strongly oppose Qatar’s takeover of Manchester United for the same reasons that they opposed Qatar’s hosting the 2022 World Cup. They contest Qatar’s restrictions of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights and the treatment of migrant workers. One group, Fair Square, has asked UEFA to block Qatar’s bid. They argue that as Qatar already owns French club Paris Saint Germain (PSG), buying Manchester United would break UEFA’s rule that prevents one owner controlling multiple teams in European football competitions. UEFA are unlikely to stop the takeover. According to UEFA, the bid for Manchester United comes from a separate entity. Many regard this as nonsense because, as Fair Square points out, it is difficult to see how any Qatari consortium can be independent of state influence.

Public versus private

Separating ownership from the state is the problem, not that English football clubs are owned by foreigners. As the Table below shows,17 of 20 Premier League Clubs are either wholly or partly foreign owned, including Nottingham Forest, which is owned by Greece’s Evangelos Maranakis. But the ownership of Manchester City by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and of Newcastle by Saudi Arabia is different. These clubs are owned by petrostates-countries economically dependent on oil and gas – not private companies. Even the Chinese company that owns Wolves is a privately owned multinational operating in16 countries.

Governments should not own football clubs. In purchasing football clubs and international events, Arab states have been accused of ‘sportswashing’, namely attempting to distract from, minimise, or normalise wrongdoing through engagement in sport. Those opposing Qatar’s bid for Manchester United will be criticised as jealous haters of the club. Some Newcastle supporters dismiss those who criticise Saudi Arabia in the same way, arguing that no one objected to the UAE taking over Manchester City, even though they did. Sowing division among football fans and reducing important arguments about human rights to finger pointing is how sportswashing works.

Ownership in the English Premier League

It is not impossible to stop governments of petrostates buying English football clubs. Governments of Iran (Everton’s owner is a private British-Iranian businessman), Iraq or North Korea among many others, would not be allowed to. Nor is it too late.In fact, this could be the ideal time to stop them. Manchester United do not need Qatar. With all respect, Manchester United are not Manchester City, Newcastle or PSG. United are not a potentially big club that has not enjoyed success for many years. Manchester United is one of the most recognised names on Earth, with an estimated 659million fans across the world, and a history of footballing success that even Liverpool fans respect.

Qatar probably will acquire Manchester United. The Glazer family will not care to whom they sell. They want as much money as they can get. And no one will stop them. But as well as being corporate entities, football clubs are community assets. Τhey should not belong to governments thinly disguised as independent sovereign wealth funds. It’s like me saying I own my house when, really, the bank does.

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