AFC Champions League: Saudi’s Al-Hilal eye the prize again

THE very long AFC (Asian Football Confederation) Champions League 2022 is finally heading towards its conclusion, with the West region playing its round of 16, quarter-finals and semi-finals in a compressed schedule in Qatar. The two-legged final won’t happen until late April and early May, Urawa Red Diamonds of Japan from the eEast region clinched their place last August.

Saudi Arabia’s Al-Hilal, who won many friends in the recent FIFA Club World Cup when they beat Brazilian side Flamengo before losing 5-3 to Real Madrid, are still involved and are hoping to retain the trophy they won in November 2021 when they beat South Korea’s Pohang Steelers. 

This season, they topped a group that included Qatar’s Al-Rayyan, Sharjah of the United Arab Emirates and Iran’s Istikol. Their round of 16 opponents, another UAE side, Shabab Al-Ahli, were beaten 3-1 with Al-Hilal’s goals coming from Nigerian Odion Ighalo, who had a loan spell with Manchester United, Luciano Vietto of Argentina (and briefly Fulham) and South Korean Jang Hyun-Soo.

In the quarter-final on February 23, they will play in Al-Wakrah against Iran’s Foolad, a team that has already disposed of two Saudi Arabian sides in the competition. Foolad, from Ahwaz in Khuzestan, are not having an outstanding season in 2022-23 and are languishing in mid-table. But they are enjoying their best ever Champions League run. Nevertheless, Al-Hilal are favourites to win through and to eventually reach their third final in four years. 

Al-Hilal are the most successful side in Saudi Arabia with 18 league titles and four Champions League victories. Fellow Riyadh club, Al-Nassr, currently making headlines due to their signing of Cristiano Ronaldo, have never won the Champions League but they have secured nine Saudi titles. They are drawing 20,000-plus crowds at present but the overall average in the Saudi League is only around a thousand more than 2021-22. It remains to be seen if CR7 stays the course in a league that is much lower quality than the top European competitions he has become accustomed to.

The other quarter final on February 23 is between Qatar’s Al-Duhail and Al-Shabab of Saudi Arabia, to be played in Doha. Al-Duhail are coached by former Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo and are top of the Qatar Stars League. They have the current top scorer in the AFC Champions League, the Belgian Edmilson Junior, in their ranks, who has netted eight goals so far. He was a substitute in Al-Duhail’s penalty shoot-out victory in the round of 16 against Qatari stable-mates Al-Rayyan. Al-Shabab are currently level on points at the top of the Saudi Pro League with Al-Nassr and Al-Ittihad, they won their round of 16 tie against Nasaf Qarshi of Uzbekistan. 

The winners of the two West region quarter-finals will complete their semi-final on February 26 with the two-legged final on April 29 and May 6. If Al-Hilal make the final, it will be a repeat of the 2019 AFC Champions League final. The competition started in March last year, so it has been a long road to Saitama, where the second leg will be played.

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.