The Qataris are going to make a bid for Manchester United. But how easy will it be to get past UEFA ownership rules? The answer may be… very easy indeed.
That the Emir of Qatar should be showing his hand in the race to buy Manchester United is no great surprise. Qatari interest in European club football has been restricted to Paris Saint-Germain, and despite the vast amount of money thrown into that club over the years and the eight Ligue Un titles delivered since they bought the club in 2011, they’ve still failed to deliver the trophy that all billionaires about town fancy more than any other – the Champions League.
At least with Manchester United, there’s a history of success in this competition, even if it isn’t particularly recent.
But there’s one obvious hurdle to any takeover of an English club by the Qataris. UEFA has rules on this sort of thing, and they do not – in theory, at least – allow clubs with the same owners to face each other in their competitions, meaning that a Qatar-owned Manchester United and Qatar-owned PSG would not be allowed to compete in a Champions League match against each other should such a fixture arise.
For the record, United and PSG have met twice before in European competition, in the 2018/19 round of 16 – United won on away goals – and in the group stage two seasons later, when both teams won their respective away ties. (Indeed, it is a small quirk of European football history that all four of the matches between these two teams have been won by the away side.)
The Qataris seem very relaxed about this, with reporting suggesting that they are considering ‘trying to persuade Uefa to consider the possibility of adjusting or changing its regulations’. It’s tempting to think that such ideas are futile, that running head-first into a bureaucracy like UEFA would be a bit of a waste of energy, but it is also worth remembering that PSG president Nasser Al-Khelaifi, the chairman of Qatar Sports Investments, is also the head of the European Club Association, which means that he has a seat on the executive committee of, well, UEFA.
And if that isn’t enough, he’s also on the organising committee for the Club World Cup and is also the chairman of Bein Sports, who hold Champions League TV rights for the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) area. He’s also described as a ‘childhood friend’ of the Emir of Qatar, and is on the board of the Qatar Investment Authority, the umbrella body under which Qatar Sports Investments rests and under which any organisation buying into Manchester United would likely rest as well. How far do we think UEFA might be prepared to bend the rules to accommodate him?
It would be in equal parts brazen and unsurprising to find that they could. And given that UEFA effectively turned a blind eye to RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg playing in the same competition before (anyone buying this ‘serious behind-the-scenes changes in order to comply with rules and facilitate the progress of achieving joint European eligibility’ guff? Thought not), then small wonder.
There has been considerable talk about this being done through separate legal entities and the like, so if this is the case, would it be reasonable to assume that Al-Khelaifi should be barred from having any discussion whatsoever with anyone from UEFA on this subject? After all, if they’re as separate as their advocates seem to be claiming them to be, we should presume that this is nothing whatsoever to do with him, shouldn’t we?
The Qataris have big plans for Manchester United, which just happen to have been leaked to the newspapers. There’s talk of transfer kitties so enormous as to be observable from space and tearing down Old Trafford to completely rebuild it from the ground up, but a lot of this talk has felt like an exercise in PR cooked up in an air-conditioned office many, many miles from Manchester.
What do fans like? Loads of money to be spent on players? How do they like it? In a war chest, for some reason. Knock Old Trafford down and rebuild it. Oh, put something about ‘fan engagement’. They love that sort of thing, for some reason. Yeah, put all of that down.
Sure enough, Old Trafford needs redevelopment, but is it really necessary to spend £2bn, as has been suggested, to completely demolish it and rebuild it from scratch? The club’s previous plans to redevelop felt like a good compromise, preserving the history of one of the world’s great football stadia.
But perhaps the point of spending so much money on a football club like United is that you’re buying the history and can do what you like with it. The Glazers – and their predecessors – commoditised it; Al-Khelaifi wants to bulldoze Old Trafford and replace it. The Theatre of Dreams will become The Theatre of Distant Memories.
Of course, should a price be agreed and should UEFA bend sufficiently to allow it to happen, no level of protest would be likely to amount to much. The Glazers weren’t removed by the near-two-decade-long campaign against them. The family even maintained ownership after the death of their patriarch Malcolm in 2014.
They’re removing themselves now, cashing out after straddling it with debt and having milked dividends from it for years and years. They’re going on their terms. Indeed, it’s likely that they’ll be pretty pleased with the Qatari announcement. After all, the price of the club’s stock on the NYSE jumped by 14% on hearing news of their interest.
But that £4.5bn figure may prove to be the biggest stumbling block for the Qatari bid. This is definitely a lot of money, but it’s still only 75% of the £6bn that the Glazers have been reported as wanting for the club. There are likely to be multiple interested parties in buying the club – Sir Jim Ratcliffe has already made his interest known – so low-balling is a bit of a strange policy.
But the one thing we can for certain is that the Glazers really love money, and there’s plenty of space between the Qatari valuation and that of the Glazers for others to occupy. The Telegraph has reported that bids above £5bn will be ‘entertained’.
So, considering that the Sportsmail ‘revelations’ read effectively like a Qatari bid PR release, we can safely assume that the PR war for hearts and minds has well and truly begun. Indeed, Sportsmail continued it with an article by Ian Ladyman explaining why morals are for losers – why would anyone expect any less from this particular organ of the press? – and that they should just all shut up and climb aboard the oil money train, literally telling United supporters – and in the headline! – that ‘they can’t afford to be fussy in the dash for cash’.
The biggest irony about all of this is that Manchester United don’t need a ‘war chest’ to be competitive. Clear the club’s debts and focus their vast commercial revenue on the team rather than director dividends, and they can compete.
If the Qataris are engaging in a PR front there’s a reason for this, and that reason may well be that when a football club has a massive global fanbase, that voice can be heard. It may not make any difference when push comes to shove, but having a vast voice of millions of people all supporting you, whether that’s reactionary newspapers or fans of the club persuaded that everything they said about Manchester City’s sportswashing owners for the last decade and a half, is an irrelevance now that they’ve caught the scent of that sweet, sweet loot themselves.
Perhaps the siren call of a billion pounds to buy Kylian Mbappe yet another crown will turn out to be all it takes for them to forget about the way that Qatar treats women, religious minorities and LGBT+ people. And perhaps their opinions won’t end up mattering in the slightest, because ignoring the best interests of fans and doing whatever the hell you like is very much the modus operandum of elite-level football in the 21st century.