Football club ownership is about to widen the chasms in the game

WITH Manchester United and Liverpool now on the market, both valued at well over £ 3 billion, another tranche of English football is about to move into the hands of investors from either the Middle East or the United States of America. As it stands, it looks as though both clubs may become part of the asset portfolio of an oil state, which would probably take both clubs to a comparable level to Manchester City and Newcastle United. The competitive advantages that Manchester City have may become eroded and two of the clubs that have complained vehemently about the uneven playing field that state ownership creates will move much closer to their despised rivals. It’s a contemporary version of “if you can’t beat them, join them”.

If, as expected, the new owners of Liverpool and Manchester United emerge as Middle Eastern petrostates, it reinforces the strength of both clubs and also becomes a wedge between them and those scrambling below. In other words, the already substantial gulf becomes wider as more clubs become beneficiaries of Arab money. The protests over Newcastle United’s takeover by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) sovereign wealth fund will surely be replicated in Liverpool and Manchester. Or will they?

Levels

Club ownership now has a kind of league table of its own. The Middle East is top of that league as the owners rarely want much in return. They see a successful football club as good for their image, something which can provide positive public relations, enhance their relationship with football authorities and help smooth the path of business. Call it sportswashing, manipulation or disingenuous, but a club owned by a country with a challenging reputation will undoubtedly receive lots of money. Roman Abramovich had a similar relationship with Chelsea, although his one big requirement was the indulgence of impatience. Managers were not allowed to “fail” but Chelsea fans consider the Russian was a good owner, delivering plenty of success.

The second level of ownership comes from the United States, a growing group of investors who are very different from the oil states. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United, among others, are in this group at the moment. Typical US sports team owners demand success on the field, but they also want to run their club as a fairly sensible business, use modern methods to buy and sell players and they also expect some sort of return from their investment. If things go well, the fans sing the praises of the owners, but as soon as success dries up or becomes more spasmodic, criticism of the owners’ lack of investment or financial priorities starts to dominate the narrative. Arsenal fans were very vocal and demonstrative about Stan Kroenke over the past couple of years, but with the Gunners flying high and playing well in 2022-23, the noise appears to have subsided. Kroenke’s name has barely been in the press this season. Fenway were praised when Liverpool won the Champions League and Premier League, but recently there have been suggestions they should move on. Manchester United’s dislike of the Glazers dates back to the very beginning of their relationship, but with almost a decade of aimless wandering, the popularity of the US family has never been lower. It was no surprise when the news was released of the Glazers’ desire to look at fresh investment in the club, a comment that could be translated as, “we want to sell”.

For the few

The sale of Chelsea to a consortium fronted by Todd Boehly, for a very lucrative price, has been the catalyst for a number of potential divestments in the game. At the very top, football clubs are very cash generative and they can be good for your image, although the vast majority of football followers can see the  agenda of countries who want to deflect from criticism of their human rights record and social/political conditions. Sadly, football sells its soul all too cheaply and too many fans choose to ignore the moral hazards of aligning clubs with regimes that discriminate on a grand scale. The winning of silverware should not be more important than the crimes and misdemeanours of intolerant societies. It is also wrong to turn a blind eye if its suits your own purposes.

Modern football is a capitalist game that relies on the generosity of benefactors and investors. Clubs no longer “belong” to fans, apart from those that are bespoke fan-owned models. If you open yourself to the benefits and perils of the free market, then you have to take your chances. Manchester United benefitted from their forays into the capital markets back in the early 1990s and this helped create the empire that dominated football until the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson. But in doing this, the club also became an asset that could exchange hands and be the subject of takeovers or hostile takeovers.

The Glazers reputedly used a technique known as a Leveraged Buyout (LBO) when they bought United, loading debt onto the club borrowed to acquire their stake. While this was a much-used method for M&A markets, it was largely unknown in football at the time.

With clubs now worth far more than they ever were, prospective buyers start to become scarcer and in those circumstances, the net has to be cast wider and into territories that may not be wholly compatible. A club worth £ 4 billion only has so many takers and the appetite will also be largely governed by macro-economics as much as personal wealth.

The more owners of the type that have made Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City into clubs with extraordinary resources, the more football leaves behind its past and solidifies the elite. Fans may complain about their owners and also those rivals that have unfair advantages, but deep down, they really want their own club to enjoy the same sort of status and that often means some have to eat their words. Be prepared for campaigns of justification in the weeks ahead if the Middle East rolls into town once or twice more.

Blattergate – the world won’t listen

THE 2022 World Cup is on the horizon and Sepp Blatter, who proudly held up the little ticket proclaiming Qatar had won the bid, has suddenly declared the Gulf state should not be hosting the competition. At the same time, a World Cup ambassador has insisted homosexuality is “damage in the mind” and fans are being paid to drum up propaganda while they are in Qatar. The tainted World Cup bandwagon will limp into Doha with all four wheels wobbling, even though 97% of tickets have been sold.

All reasonable people will be secretly willing the World Cup to be an economic failure, that FIFA will be left with egg on their faces. Those who have relatives and friends making the trip to Qatar hope they all come back unscathed. FIFA has already been “used” by Vova Putin and Russia and it is likely that Qatar will do the same. Russia did exactly what Germany set out to achieve in 1936 with the Olympics by presenting an acceptable face to the world in the form of positive PR, smiling faces and welcoming arms. The streets were “cleaned” in more ways than one but when the final came along, the solitary umbrella should have told us a little about Putin’s mindset. Competition over, seemingly successful, he didn’t care about the others getting a good old Moscow soaking.

FIFA made a huge mistake with Russia and they are doing the same with Qatar. The big difference is Qatar are buying support all the time, paying celebrities to endorse their country. The game is also doing itself an injustice by not speaking out and taking action. We need but one country to withdraw and the competition could unravel.

Blatter’s comments do him little credit, it is the equivalent of the cock starting to crow three times. In a few months, it will be impossible to find anyone who supported Qatar, even if the competition is a success. Actually, it will [officially] be a wonderful occasion because the public relations will tell us that. Qatar is the sort of place that can easily suppress problems, so the narrative will be overwhelmingly positive.

But really, Blatter speaking out at this advanced stage suggests the corruption was probably far worse than anyone could imagine. If a pivotal figure in the story tells us Qatar should not have won it, then you can be sure that he’s only allowing a peek at the tip of the iceberg. Sceptics have spoken about the process surrounding the bidding and also warned of Qatar’s human rights record, its treatment of migrant workers and its stance on homosexuality. In 12 years, the lack of activity around forcing FIFA to remove hosting rights really speaks of the apathy towards Qatar’s significant shortcomings.  Now, in the space of a few days, Blatter and a World Cup ambassador have confirmed what we already knew. But still, the stampede to tiny Doha goes on.

The problem we have with World Cups is they are becoming too big to handle. A 48-team tournament is both unwieldy and expensive. In 2026, USA, Canada and Mexico will co-host, although it is clear it is a US production. The 2030 edition has yet to be decided upon, but among the interested parties are Saudi Arabia, which will bring a whole new wave of discussions. Morocco are in there, but it is hard to see FIFA ever granting them an opportunity. The fact is, on their own, most interested parties cannot seriously hope to stage the World Cup as it stands, but joint bids are undoubtedly the way forward. Unless you are Qatar, of course, with the financial clout to overcome real and perceived problems.