I was not planning on writing anymore about football so soon, but this story is far too important to ignore.
If you are hearing screams right now, let me assure you that you are probably not crazy; the screams you hear are coming out of Manchester. According to the ever-reliable British press (already a red flag), the Qatari royal family, through its investment arm Qatari Holding, has put in a £1.5 billion bid to take over Manchester United. United is denying that the club is for sale. Besides, the owning Glazer family will not sell for less than £2 billion.
So the screams. There are actually two different kind. The screams of joy are from the red side of Manchester who want the Glazers far away from their beloved United, and screams of despair are from the blue side (Manchester City). You have to feel sorry for City fans. Ever since the oil-garch takeover of City, the fans have been hoping that the curse that appeared to have been laid on them had finally lifted. Nevertheless, every time City came this close to Champions League qualification, the squad fell apart. Overpriced talent only added insult to injury. Just this weekend, City lost to Aston Villa, and now they are third in the standings: behind United and Arsenal, with Chelsea and Tottenham not far behind.
Despite all these setbacks, City fans still had hope. Over the past few years only Chelsea could spend as freely as City, and Roman Abramovich has tightened the purse string of late. City had a plan: a Champions League berth this season, the EPL title next season, European and home domination forever after.
But now the Qataris have put a bid in for United, City’s most hated enemy. The Qataris are oil-garchs (and natural gas-garchs) who may be even wealthier than City’s owners. The Qataris already own a club (Spain’s Málaga CF), and more significantly, they will be Barcelona’s first ever shirt sponsors–a subject which is very sore for me.
The Qataris are doing this because of their love for football; they are doing it because of a love for themselves. By flashing their money around, they believe they are showing how important they are (and in a capitalist economy maybe they are right.) This self-importance was the driving motivation behind Qatar’s successful World Cup bid, and it is why they are trying to buy European football. The bigger the club, the more important the Qataris think they are. Málaga is a nothing club really, but a Barcelona shirt sponsorship–and the first in that club’s history–that is a big deal. Owning the legendary Manchester United would be real clout; no need to worry about the “minnows”–West Ham, Newcastle, or Everton.
Qatari ownership of United is a very frightening prospect. First, it further drains the already steadily eroding joy out of the sport. It’s already bad enough when the ultra-rich buy one club as a personal plaything. How much worse will it be when they buy multiple clubs? Second, between an Abu Dhabi-backed City and a Qatar-backed United, the already out of control races in the EPL and Europe would spiral into football version of the nations of Qatar and the UAE–extreme wealth at the very top and extreme poverty everywhere else. For all those people who constantly complain that La Liga is an extreme version of Scotland, just imagine an EPL that is only United and City.
In the meanwhile, fans of Liverpool FC must be wondering what is wrong with them and their club. When Hicks and Gillett were in charge, Liverpool fans were desperate for a sugar daddy like at Chelsea or City. Not a word from the Qataris. Instead Liverpool got John W. Henry and New England Sports Ventures. The Scousers are suspicious of the new owners because (1) like Hicks and Gillett (and the Glazers), Henry is American; and (2) Henry is the owner of the Boston Red Sox, and while Henry knows baseball, he has little knowledge about football.
If the Qataris were to take over United, the only saving grace may well be the UEFA financial fair play rules that Platini successfully championed. Those rules forbid clubs from entering European competition (Champions League or Europa League) unless the clubs at least break even over a rolling three year period. In other words, extravagant spending may be all well and good at City or Chelsea (or Barcelona, Madrid, Inter, Bayern, etc.) but those club must earn at least the amount they spend. For the top teams (and their owners), who want European success, which is the ultimate prize, this is a real threat causing real worry.
If somehow the financial fair play rules do not go into effect–or prove to be less than successful–then what is already a limited competition will be closed off to all but those clubs who are backed by the super-wealthy. Eventually the super-wealthy will get bored of these clubs. The clubs will then be sold, accumulating massive debt in the process that can never be paid off (football club ownership bears more than a passing resemblance to a Ponzi scheme.) If that happens, clubs like City, Chelsea, and yes, maybe even United, will fall and fall hard.