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.