The battle to take over Manchester United, the world’s most valuable soccer club

The Premier League side’s new owner will be either a billionaire whose companies pollute the environment or a member of the Qatari royal family

Manchester United fans protest
Manchester United fans protest against the club’s owners, the Glazers, in 2022.Andy Barton (SOPA Images / LightRocket / Getty Images)

Something is stirring in the hearts of Manchester United fans. Theirs is the most highly valued soccer club in the world, according to Forbes magazine, and ranks third behind only the Dallas Cowboys and the New York Yankees across all sports. Inside and outside their historic Old Trafford stadium, fans have been waging war against owners Avram and Joel Glazer (who replaced their father Malcolm, who passed away in 2014). And now they are forced to accept one of two offers on the table for the club — one very bad and the other much worse. There is no consensus on which is which, however, and there’s the rub.

At the end of 2022 the Glazers, owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Manchester United since 2005, revealed their intention to sell 69% of the club’s shares. They asked for a third round of bids whose deadline was the end of April. Rumors and leaks in the British financial media suggested the figure of €6 billion ($6.5 billion) as the asking price to get their consent. It would be a record in the world of sports.

The two final contenders have already presented themselves in previous rounds (a disgruntled third party, Finnish tycoon Thomas Zilliacus, left the bidding after a third round was announced, calling the process a “farce”). The first contender is Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the richest man in the United Kingdom. He is the preferred choice of Michael Crick, a proud season ticket holder at United for 40 years. Crick is a former journalist who was on the founding team of Channel 4 and, while he was the political correspondent for the BBC’s famous Newsnight program, he created the Shareholders United Against Murdoch movement to successfully prevent the takeover of his club by the newspaper magnate Rupert Murdoch in the 1998-99 season.

But he sees this option as the lesser of two evils. “I’m nervous,” he says now. “I guess I’d rather Ratcliffe won. He was born a couple of miles from Newton Heath, where the club was founded [in 1878, as Newton Heath LYR Football Club] and I know from a friend who worked very closely with him that he is always talking about Manchester United. But then you have this whole history of fighting unions, bad business practices, being against green taxes and in favor of Brexit, taking over companies and cutting investment and making a profit from them, which is what businessmen do. Capitalism, wow. That makes me very nervous, because the Glazers have already taken a lot of money out of United.”

Jim Ratcliffe at a press conference in Yorkshire in May 2019.
Jim Ratcliffe at a press conference in Yorkshire in May 2019. Martin Rickett (Getty)

The fact that he talks in private about Manchester United is no minor detail and provides reassurance to a good part of the Red Devils’ fans. Since Ratcliffe’s interest in buying the club became known, he has suffered no end of criticism and pressure of all kinds, not the least of which is the fact that he is a Chelsea season ticket holder and tried to buy the club last year, when Roman Abramovich was forced to sell it following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And for years environmental activists have been denouncing the leading role his company INEOS, a petrochemical giant, plays in the production of plastic, fossil fuels and toxic pesticides. Finally, there are doubts about his investment in United from the moment he said he only wants to take 69% of the club’s shares — those held by the Glazers — and has not committed to taking over the immense debt the club has accumulated.

A Manchester native and season ticket holder since his childhood, Scott Patterson is one of the most reputable tweeters on club news and author of the TheRepublikofMancunia blog. Patterson explains: “United owe £969.6 million [($1.05 billion)] in a combination of gross debt, bank loans and unpaid transfer fees. So, we can’t afford to get too picky with the choice of new owners.”

Taking over that debt is the main appeal of the other bidder: Sheikh Jassim, president of Qatar Islamic Bank, one of the largest in the Middle East. He is also a member of the Qatari royal family, which already owns Paris Saint-Germain, and he has just taken over a large part of the Portuguese soccer club Sporting de Braga. He is a man of unlimited wealth. That part is more attractive to a section of Manchester United fans, who in recent years have seen neighboring Manchester City, once barely even rivals, overtake them as the city’s and country’s top team thanks to investment from Abu Dhabi. But, of course, this is Qatar, and all that that implies in terms of human rights.

Jassim would also want to own 100% of the club’s shares, something that is neither simple nor quick to achieve. The Glazers bought a majority stake in the club in 2005 and now own 69% of the shares, which they are selling. To obtain the remaining 31%, Sheikh Jassim would need time to convince the remaining small shareholders, if possible, to sell their stakes. That could result in the buyout process taking a long time or never even coming to fruition.

But the importance of the economic issue, which obviously worries United’s supporters, risks overshadowing the ethical and moral implications of an operation that would take place 25 years after United fans came together to stop Murdoch from taking over their club. What has changed? Among other things, the sporting successes, which were then commonplace (United won the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League in the 1998-99 season), are now scarce, and neighboring Manchester City is now the English top flight’s leading club.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, in an image from June 2013.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, in an image from June 2013. REUTERS

Samuel Luckhurst, Manchester United correspondent for the Manchester Evening News, writes that “Manchester City’s success is hard for the United fan to digest, but, from their point of view, it is a dirty success and a case of ‘sportswashing.’ Many United supporters would rather keep the moral high ground than become a state-owned club.”

But who are the United fans? The 75,000 that fit into Old Trafford? The rest of the club’s supporters in Greater Manchester? All of Britain? Or the hundreds of millions who, with avatars of Eric Cantona, red devils or variations of the shield, connect to social networks from Buenos Aires, Rabat, Cairo and, of course, Qatar? Which fans matter most?

“There is a huge difference between the viewpoint of the fans who attend Old Trafford and those who are online,” says Patterson, who has a foot in both worlds and knows what he is talking about. “One example: [local star] Marcus Rashford’s last season was very poor, but in the stadium, I didn’t find a single person who didn’t support him or hope he would regain his previous form. On the other hand, there were a lot of fans on social media asking for him to be sold, which blew my mind.”

For Patterson, this has to do with the reason people become United fans. “It’s my home team, my whole family supports United and has done so for generations. My father used to go to Old Trafford when the team was in the Second Division in the 1970s, and his father lived through the golden era of the Busby Babes and the Munich air disaster. For people who came to United for the successes alone, it makes more sense to accept any owner who can bring them back, while we local fans care about many other things besides winning trophies. Although we love that too, obviously.”

Luckhurst agrees with Patterson: “Online followers who are primarily concerned with transfers and are more impressionable associate Qatar with a bottomless pit of money. In contrast, most supporters who go to Old Trafford use its facilities and care about preserving United’s working-class roots and would prefer Sir Jim Ratcliffe to buy the club.”

While it is true that the unethical aspect of Manchester United becoming a Qatari state-owned club has taken up a good number of column inches in the British media — especially in the more left-leaning press — it is equally true that there is no unanimity and that there are many gray areas and between-the-lines messages in favor of Qatar.

Luckhurst explains how “some journalists who traveled to Qatar to cover the World Cup made contact with people who are now giving them news or updates on Sheikh Jassim’s interest in buying United, and they faithfully reproduce what they are told in their articles. Perception is also skewed because of the sizable contingent of online supporters who favor Qatari control. There are media outlets that publish updates on Qatar just because they know it will bring them online revenue.”

A couple of recent examples are worth mentioning. In the last week of March, when both Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim failed to deliver their new proposals to the Glazers on time (a matter that was later resolved), the presenter of a Manchester United news outlet with a huge online following claimed, with obvious concern, that if Qatar failed to buy Manchester United it would buy another Premier League club. This would have a double negative effect: United would be left without the millions and would lose the money to a rival. These stories are fabricated on social networks and fulfill their role by spreading like wildfire and guiding opinion. In the same week, two banners appeared at United’s training ground. One said, “Glazers out,” which is nothing new; but, next to it, the other said “Welcome Qatar.” The image instantly went viral on social networks, generating thousands of positive interactions.

The Qatari royal family, which has ruled the country for more than 150 years, invests in the UK through the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) sovereign wealth fund and owns, according to an audit carried out by The Observer in late 2022, real estate worth £10 billion ($12.48 billion). In addition, data made public by the UK government in March 2023 indicates that trade between the UK and Qatar rose to £12.1 billion ($15.1 billion) in the last financial year. Qatar has significant assets in major British companies such as British Airways, Sainsbury’s, Barclays and Harrods. In other words, it is foolish to think that they would let their bid for Manchester United float unaccompanied on the tides of British public opinion.

In December 2022, The Guardian published an article by Jim Waterson about how British journalists who denounced the treatment of migrant workers building World Cup stadiums did not receive calls from Qatar to back down on their accusations. Instead, they received them from Britons like George Pascoe-Watson, a former political editor of The Sun, who offered views in line with the interests of Qatar. The article explained how British public relations and lobbying firms such as Portland (of which Pascoe-Watson is a senior partner), were making a lot of money working for Qatar.

Portland’s founder Tim Allan is a former deputy to Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s communications director, and was, coincidentally, BSkyB’s communications director when Rupert Murdoch tried to buy Manchester United through his TV operator in 1998. When the buy-out had already failed, Allan wrote in The Guardian on April 12, 1999: “The emotional arguments against the deal have been provided by a well-organized campaign team, which the BBC has inexplicably allowed to be led by one of its journalists, Michael Crick.” Twenty-five years later, Crick laughs at the memory. Although the grimace afterwards indicates that he knows this time is different.

Fans outside the Old Trafford stadium in Manchester.
Fans outside the Old Trafford stadium in Manchester. Jon Super (AP)

Like Patterson, Crick watches this battle of reputations with sadness, resignation and even a hint of anger because he senses how it will end. “The British media are totally complicit. If they had supported our protests [against the Glazers] or, at least, had not laughed at them for 18 years, perhaps we would not be in this situation now. It is very hypocritical for them to write outraged articles now about potentially unacceptable buyers. Where have those articles been for the last 18 years?”

Against all this, Sir Jim Ratcliffe appeals to the soul of fans like Patterson and Crick, and to tradition. “We want a Manchester United anchored in its proud history and its roots in the northwest of England, for Manchester United to be Manchester again,” the businessman said in an interview in The Times. Ratcliffe is thus addressing the 75,000 supporters who attend Old Trafford rather than the millions of fans scattered around the globe to whom Sheikh Jassim appeals.

But it is not a simple choice between money and ethics, as we have already seen. The large debt, the outdated facilities that threaten to make the club inoperative in the market and the feeling of having reached a point of no return have conditioned the fans’ mood. As Crick says: “Many United supporters are against Sheikh Jassim in either scenario, but the moral laxity of some fans about the type of person they want running the club is driven by necessity. The lack of certainty in the future, especially because of the debt, is going to cause many to accept anything from almost anyone as long as they make it go away.”

“We don’t really need the Qatar money to compete,” says Patterson. “We already generate enough. As long as United is allowed to spend its own money, continue to develop world-class talent in our academy as we have always done, and we have qualified people making the decisions, we can compete.” Still, Patterson is not able to express a preference for either of the two potential buyers: “Neither one of them is to my taste. I guess my ideal buyer would be someone with Ratcliffe’s connection to the club and the Qatari’s intention to clear the debt and redevelop the stadium. But that doesn’t seem to exist, really.”

Crick does prefer to go with Ratcliffe, although he recalls being “very nervous about the prospect.” Does he sometimes wish Manchester United hadn’t been such a globally successful club? “No,” he replies without hesitation. “Not really. Over the years, many of our best players have come out of Manchester. Sometimes from next door’s back yard. We have also been a club that has grown by participating in European competitions. This combination has been a success. Plus an attractive attacking game. That’s the formula.” And, he adds with feigned but not entirely fake excitement, as if just by saying it, it would come true: “Ideally, it would be the supporters who owned the club and we would look for a way to organize ourselves”. It takes three seconds for that idea to fall hopelessly to the ground: “But it’s too late. I don’t think we can do anything anymore.”

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