Manchester United and Qatar: The world must listen

MANCHESTER United is arguably the biggest football club in Britain, possibly the world and it is up for sale. There should be a string of would-be buyers eager to revive the fortunes of the club and leverage its enormous financial potential. It has been relatively quiet, but one assumes that as the February 17 deadline for offers approaches, there will be a flurry of activity and a few games of cat and mouse to be played. 

Now, we hear that Qatar is interested in Manchester United, the World Cup host that continues to crave credibility, even though the state’s reputation around human rights has changed little. Nobody did too much about this other than promise “platforms would be used” to send a message, but ultimately, this amounted to next to nothing, because Qatar didn’t permit it. Concerns about Saudi Arabia’s takeover of Newcastle United has been allowed to evaporate, just as everyone has resumed their post-World Cup business as usual as if Qatar never happened. Now, whenever a club comes up for sale, they appear to look towards the middle east for their salvation. The simple truth is nobody has any money or appetite apart from gulf states and some US investors. 

Is Qatar really interested? Or have they emerged with a “possible” bid to stir-up investor interest and drive the price? It is clear this type of posturing and manipulation is creeping into sport, be it bogus interest in a player by an elite club, agents encouraging player unrest to get a move mid-contract or ownership plays. Is this merely one of those occasions?

Qatar, of course, already owns Paris Saint-Germain and has a stake in Portugal’s SC Braga. It would be a complex transaction should they really want to buy Manchester United. But Qatar has various vehicles it could use within the Qatar Investment Authority’s (QIA) arsenal such as Qatar National Bank, who could front the bid. QIA is the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar which funds Qatar Sports Investments (QSI), the owner of PSG. It has US$ 450 billion of assets under management.

Qatar’s influence on football is growing and they already have a seat on the UEFA executive committee in the form of PSG’s Nasser al-Khelaifi, who was heartily and emotionally thanked by UEFA President Mr. Ceferin for steering his club away from the European Super League project. At best, QSI could only take a minority stake in Manchester United, but as everyone in business knows, there are ways and means if you are allowed to finesse a deal.

Manchester United fans should be very concerned about this development, but will they just be so relieved to get rid of the Glazer family that they will welcome any new owner with open arms and ignore the backdrop? That appears to have happened elsewhere in football.

Plenty of the club’s fans were enthused by the prospect of INEOS owner Jim Ratcliffe taking the club over as they believe he would be more of a benefactor rather than investor. Nobody really knows that. Any white knight would possibly be fronting a consortium as the price being asked – the Glazers want £ 6 billion – makes it nigh on impossible for an individual to acquire the club. If that would be the case, then the chance of “sugar daddy” ownership is almost impossible. The price may not be as much as that, indeed Qatar are supposedly looking at £ 4.5 billion, but there will never be another Abramovich, the world has become far more complicated since 2003 when he bought Chelsea.

Should Qatar manage to succeed, then it would also be another twist in the multi-club ownership model. Javier Tebas of La Liga: “Multi-club ownership is already a complicated topic, but it becomes even more complex when a state owns multiple clubs. It would not be good for European football.”

As mentioned, the deadline for offers is still a week away, so the Qatar saga is only just beginning. Whether it is a genuine interest or if it is designed to “flush out” other investors remains to be seen. It is quite likely that things will become even more complicated than they already seems.

Fenway and Liverpool: Time’s up?

SOME Liverpool fans may be anxious about the prospect of a new owner; if nothing else a change at the top can bring about disruption and, in what is proving to be a difficult season for the club, they could do without a period of uncertainty. But it is no coincidence that Fenway are contemplating a divestment, be it a partial disposal or complete sale. In the current climate, there have to be concerns about the type of investor that might be drawn to Liverpool and if you believe everything you read, the supporters will be demanding a say in who takes over. That won’t happen, of course, FSG are smart business people and professional sports team owners.

Since 2011-12, Fenway’s first full season as owners of Liverpool, the club has spent £1.2 billion in transfers, the fifth highest gross outlay in the Premier League. However, the club’s net spend, a popular topic of discussion at Anfield, was £ 446 million. By comparison, Manchester United and Manchester City run-up a net outlay of over £ 1 billion. Liverpool have been very smart in the market and their success has been a combination of good use of resources and dynamic leadership from Jürgen Klopp. But the Klopp team that won the Champions League in 2019 and the Premier League in 2020 has peaked and a rebuild is needed. The Premier League, especially when you have opponents like Manchester City, doesn’t allow you the time to change the oil. In all probability, Liverpool will have to tolerate a couple of transition years, unless of course, fresh impetus arrives. Furthermore, if Liverpool fail to qualify for the 2023-24 Champions League, the club’s market value will surely drop.

There seems to be a disproportionate amount of angst over Liverpool’s current position. The fans seem obsessed with Manchester City and Klopp appears more irritable by the week. Klopp was appointed in October 2015 and it wasn’t until 2019 that he won his first piece of silverware. Nobody ever felt Klopp wasn’t doing his job properly, the trajectory was positive and there were visible signs that something special was happening. The 2021-22 season could have been the greatest ever campaign, but two trophies, admittedly the two lesser baubles, was the outcome. Klopp’s team went into 2022-23 possibly a little burnt out. The club didn’t strengthen in the right places and the finger was pointed at Fenway rather than Klopp, whose popularity remains strong.

Despite Fenway’s conservative ownership and investment in the club’s infrastructure, the underlying feeling is that Liverpool’s owners cannot or will not attempt to compete with the seemingly endless resources of state-owned or influenced clubs. Why should they? If they are sports team owners, who treat clubs like assets, then why would they run a club in a manner that diminishes the asking price?

There is every possibility Liverpool’s valuation has peaked, although people appear to be sticking a pin on a graph in coming up with the club’s true value. Let’s say £ 4 billion is a likely price – who will be in a position to pay such a figure? With interest in the Premier League from the US still growing, it is possible Liverpool will exchange one American owner for another. On the other hand, if they want to compete with Manchester City, they will have to find a sovereign wealth fund or oil billionaire with money to spare. How will that align itself with the club’s values?

Fenway may have concluded the time is right to exit. John Henry was an advocate of the aborted European Super League and was left red-faced when it collapsed, prompting him to publicly apologise. At the moment, it is all very tentative, but they are not likely to declare they want completely out as it can compromise the price and may deter any auction. The fact they have engaged Wall Street names like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley to sound-out the market means they are very serious. Fenway will have no shortage of takers, the club would be an attractive acquisition, regardless of who manages the team or who sits in the boardroom.

However, with clubs now costing billions, fans cannot hope to exert much influence on how their owners handle their property. Football is no longer the property of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, it is now part of the asset management industry. While fans may hope for a new owner who indulges the culture of the club, they are at the mercy of the free market. As we have often seen, the popularity of an owner is not necessarily determined by how efficient they are at running a club, it depends on how much they “invest” in a team and how successful that team becomes. Like coaches, owners can go from hero to zero in a short space of time.