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.

Qatar’s World Cup – an inflection point in the modern game

HOW ironic the World Cup final will be contested by Argentina and France, two nations whose star players just happen to play for Paris Saint-Germain. PSG, as we are all aware, are owned by Qatar, so the presence of Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappé fits nicely into the host nation’s agenda. From their perspective, 2022 could not have been more successful.

That is assuming Qatar doesn’t really care about what people are saying about their society, their treatment of women, human rights and homosexuality. The 32 nations who travelled to Qatar didn’t seem to “use their platform” to make a stand about these issues as they promised, but we wait for the return of the fans to hear about the way they were treated. Qatar’s only setback was the performance of their team, arguably the weakest host in the competition’s history.

The 2022 World Cup, pre-final, drew an average of almost 53,000 per game (at least, that’s the official figure), the third highest ever and better than traditional football countries such as Germany, France, Italy and Spain, not to mention England in 1966. The tournament’s goals-per-game ratio, before the finale, was 2.63 which is almost identical to the last two World Cups.[1]

There has been no shortage of drama, or even fairytales, but there was a lack of genuine quality and an absence of a truly outstanding team. The media have been urging Lionel Messi to make the final, devoting almost entire commentaries and panel discussions to the Argentinian skipper. They also wanted Cristiano Ronaldo to join him on the podium, but it was difficult to justify when he sat on the bench for so long. Neymar, too, was in focus, but like Ronaldo, he departed unfulfilled and in floods of tears.

Rarely has a World Cup appeared to be the end of the road for so many players and teams. We are coming to the closure of a unique, golden era in which some truly remarkable footballers are about to disappear from the international (and domestic) stage.

Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar will probably never appear again in the World Cup, leaving a big gap to fill for Argentina, Portugal and Brazil. While the likes of Pelé, Maradona and the original Ronaldo all finished their careers with a World Cup winners’ medal, only Messi of this trio can do likewise. Cristiano Ronaldo, while possessing magnificent statistics[2], will never be looked upon in the same way as dear old Eusébio. It is clearly hard for these players to realise they could end their celebrated playing days without the greatest prize, but none are short of rewards. In the case of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, their careers seem to have dragged on for ever, so it will be equally hard for their fans to deal with their retirement from the scene.

There are others who will be coming to terms with reaching the end of their World Cup lives; Luka Modrić, Harry Kane, Olivier Giroud, Robert Lewandowski, Christian Eriksen, Thomas Müller, Sergio Busquets, Kevin De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Karim Benzema and Virgil van Dijk may all be be waving goodbye.

As well as individuals, the 2022 World Cup may also signal the end of a natural cycle for some national teams. Belgium, for example, were a golden generation that failed to deliver on its huge potential. Packed with stand-out players at club level, Belgium, who finished third in 2018, had clearly passed their best by the time they rolled into Qatar. Almost half their squad was over 30, including De Bruyne and Hazard, Alex Witsel, Dries Mertens and Jan Vertonghen.  

The same could be said of the England squad to some extent, who seem to be divided almost equally between the future and the past. While they have some outstanding talent that will surely form the heart of their team in the years ahead – Foden, Bellingham and Saka – they may also have seen the best of Raheem Sterling, Kane, Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Kyle Walker. England reached the quarter-finals but as in the past, capitulated when facing a decent side.

The usual “what ifs” dominated the post-match narrative, but England are effectively not a lot different from where they were at the start of the 21st century[3]. They have now happily returned to last eight status after a period in which they struggled to get beyond group stages. England left Qatar in better shape than some of their peers; Germany, Spain and Portugal, for instance, all fell short. One of the problems for some countries is the longevity of some careers, which can prevent new blood from emerging and make “untouchables” out of long-serving squad members.

Of course, Argentina rely heavily on one of their stalwarts and should he depart the international arena, their team will be badly affected. Although they reached the final, they are workmanlike in composition and deeds. France, on paper, may be the strongest team, but they do not have an orchestrator like Messi.

Many have proclaimed that 2022 is a turning point for Africa, but in reality, it is a turning point for Morocco, although the jury should remain out on whether this is a journey to sunny uplands for the entire continent. Certainly, more games were won by Africans than ever before (seven, eight if you include penalty shoot-outs), but four of the eight were by Morocco. The gap may have closed between CAF representatives and Europe, but given consistency has always been one of the stumbling blocks, 2026 will be an important World Cup for Africa.

Qatar is an inflection point because it also leaves FIFA nursing a battered reputation, although they seem to have ignored the damage done to their image by merely announcing even more tournaments and 48-team World Cup in 2026. After handing the competition to Russia and Qatar, FIFA has to be investigated further around its values and political motives. As the sport’s governing body, it also needs to be regulated more stringently[4]. In the aftermath of a fairly decent World Cup on the pitch, FIFA cannot be allowed to make decisions that harm the game and its reputation. The football world should be saying right now, “enough is enough” and that should include an overhaul of FIFA’s management.

[1] World Cup 2018 goals per game 2.64, World Cup 2014 goals per game 2.67

[2] Ronaldo has scored 701 goals in 951 games, including 118 in 196 games for Portugal

[3] 2002 World Cup QF, 2004 Euros QF, 2006 World Cup QF.

[4] In 2018, FIFA revised its code of ethics to remove corruption as one of the enumerated bases of ethical violations. It retained bribery, misappropriation of funds and manipulation of competitions as offences, but added a statute of limitation clause that those offences could not be pursued after a 10-year period.