The Qatar World Cup was on its third day when Manchester United’s press office announced that its American owners were scouting for a final game they had long refused to even contemplate: Potential sale From the famous English football club.
Every day since that November morning, speculation about who might buy United, one of the world’s most famous and valuable sports teams, has increased.
But from Qatar, investors have been rumored for weeks to be interested in adding United to the country’s expanding sports portfolio, as details of the first official bid have emerged. And just like that, the fight for the club’s future, the battle of disparate visions of what kind of Manchester United would emerge from the auction, began.
The official word on the tangible Qatari interest arrived in a statement Friday evening: an all-cash offer — reportedly worth up to $6 billion — by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, a little-known royal whose power may lie more in his rule. The position of Chairman of the Board of Directors of a large Qatari bank and the influence of his father, a former Prime Minister helped put their small country on the international map.
Sheikh Jassim’s statement displayed populism, or at least what seemed like a Gulf billionaire’s vision of it. Vowing to invest in United’s stadium and teams without adding a dollar to his debt, his five-paragraph statement read like a box exercise in proposals designed to win the support of anyone eager to see the back of the Glazers, the family that has dominated the Premier League giants for nearly two decades. .
But Sheikh Jassim’s “debt-free” takeover proposal also did nothing to disguise the financial power behind the bid that would, in an instant, make United the most popular Qatari-owned property on earth.
His public presentation surprised the other bidders. Raine, the investment bank handling the sale for the United board and the Glazer family, has asked potential buyers to limit any public statements, perhaps to attract as many bids as possible, or at least to avoid scaring off any bidders.
The Qatari bid changed that, and soon prompted another bidder, Jim Ratcliffe, the Monte Carlo-based British petrochemicals billionaire, to confirm first privately and then publicly that he had made a bid for 69 per cent of United, the amount the club owned before. glaziers.
Ratcliffe clearly offered United fans an English alternative to the prospect of Gulf ownership. Born in Manchester and a lifelong United fan, Ratcliffe promised to put “Manchester United returns to Manchester Unitedto revive a club based not on foreign interests but on its “proud history and roots in the North West of England”.
The competing offers immediately divided United’s fan base, with many overseas fans openly eager on social media to sell what they hoped would see Qatar’s deep pockets do for Manchester United what billions of dollars from the United Arab Emirates had done for neighbors Manchester City. . This sentiment appears not to be shared by many of the club’s supporters, with concerns raised by fan groups in England about everything from human rights to football. Sports integrity.
The latter may be the most daunting hurdle, because Sheikh Jassim and Ratcliffe can expect to face scrutiny under rules set by UEFA, UEFA, which prohibit teams with the same owner from playing in major continental competitions such as the Champions League.
Ratcliffe already owns OGC Nice, who play in Ligue 1 and has amassed some of his fortune to fund its push towards European qualification.
Sheikh Jassim will face the challenge of convincing football’s regulators that his interests differ from those of the Qatari ownership group that runs perennial Champions League rival Paris Saint-Germain. Sheikh Jassim’s father was, along with the country’s former emir, one of the architects of Qatar’s vision for itself as a player on the world stage, and one of the driving forces behind its flashy purchases of display assets like another British institution, Harrods. The Shard is the tallest building in Britain. The father’s close ties to the country’s leadership have already raised suspicions that his son’s pursuit of United is merely a private investment.
Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim may soon face other challenges, too. The Friday bid deadline was artificial, and United’s bankers thought he was rushing it. There may already be other bids, and new (and possibly even higher) bids can still be submitted.
But one thing all bids – overt, secret or forthcoming – would benefit from is the near-universal agreement among United fans of all stripes that the club should not run the famously unpopular Glazers. The family acquired the team in a highly controversial deal in 2005 profiting the majority of the purchase price against the club, meaning United spent hundreds of millions of dollars paying for the family’s right to own it.
This deal, while irritating supporters, was extremely profitable for the Glazers. Through fees and dividend payments, the family actually earned a much higher return than their initial direct investment (a fraction of the $1.4 billion purchase price at the time). The value of the club has skyrocketed, with news reports indicating that the family is now seeking up to $7 billion to part with it.
This price point will greatly narrow the pool of potential owners. At least one potential buyer told the New York Times last week that anything close to that number was “crazy,” and said his group pulled out because it believed United, still carrying about $600 million in debt, was worth no more than that. From 3 billion pounds, or 3.6 billion dollars.
However, in the Raine, United’s owners entrusted the task of soliciting bids to a bank with a poor track record of finding buyers willing to pay above-market prices. The company, which is led by New York banker Joe Ravitch, secured 2.5 billion pounds (about $3 billion) last year in a sale to Chelsea. But this was more than a forced sale, sparked by British government sanctions against Chelsea’s Russian club owner, Roman Abramovich, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Glazers don’t face the same pressure. Their invitation to bid for United was simply framed as an attempt to “explore strategic alternatives for the club”.
This means that whatever the billionaires offer, whatever they promise, and wherever they call home, Manchester United will only be sold at the price the Glazers are willing to accept.