Date: 20th December 2010 at 3:00pm
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Writing about football rumours is generally a pointless business. The vast majority of the speculation is nonsense — freely acknowledged nonsense — designed to do nothing more than keep the whole tumbrel rolling. Like water on a prayer wheel, talking about football glorifies football, makes football stronger, and so serves it’s own purpose. Accuracy is generally an afterthought, if indeed a thought at all.

But while most rumours are nonsense, the reactions of the fans to them tend to be honest: I really would have liked Mesut Ozil; I really wouldn’t have liked Joe Cole. So while the mooted £1.5 billion takeover of Manchester United by Qatari Holdings remains the purest of heresay, neither side having even bothered to deny it, it still represents a chance for United fans to envision a life after the Glazers.

Elsewhere on this website, a poll asking readers “Would you welcome a Qatari takeover?” is currently 83% in favour, an approval rating politicians would kill for. And the promise is alluring: on the one hand, no more debt; on the other, no more debt. If we had a third hand, no more debt. Then maybe a couple of players on top of that. Did I mention no more debt?

Whereas for the prospective owners, it’s all about the cachet: owning the most successful club in Premier League history has got to be a major boost to the ego. It’s a few steps above a yacht as a vanity purchase, and it makes sense as part of what looks to be a coordinated assault by Qatari money on the sacred artefacts of football. First the World Cup. Then that long-held taboo: the space on the front of Barcelona’s shirts. Now United? Everything’s for sale.

It seems to me that the positive reaction from some United fans is both entirely understandable but perhaps a touch short-sighted. Indeed, it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest that United fans would accept almost any alternative ownership, if it would mean removing the debt. Yet is it really better to be little more than a toy of the super-rich? Apart from the fact that there’s less chance of the club going into genuine financial meltdown, United is simply exchanging a set of owners using the club for selfish financial ends, to another using the club for selfish egoistical ends. The club is still being used by owners who care nothing for the club in itself, only for what it does for them.

The two previous takeovers under similar circumstances in the Premier League were, of course, Chelsea and Manchester City, bought by Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour as the natural next step after shiny cars and super yachts, vital accessories for the international pastime of super-rich dick-swinging. They are clubs operated for the aggrandisement of their owners, rather like the circuses of Caligula and Nero, who derived great joy from watching indentured commoners kicking lumps out of one another. And what success they have had — this point applies to Chelsea only — is tainted by association with what Arsène Wenger rather cutely called ‘financial doping’. He’s a bad loser, Arsène, but he’s a clever man, and he knows a performance-enhancing injection of cash when he sees one. So let us be very clear: this purchase would place United in exactly the same position.

Such a takeover would also mean that the fans would be robbed of their only means of holding the club to account, the threat of withdrawing their financial support. The green-and-gold boycott campaign, while only haphazardly effective and widely disregarded, appears to have influenced the Glazer’s recent wrapping up of the PIK debts, and this is because the survival of the Glazer regime is dependent on the continued flow of money through the club. That stops, they’re screwed. But Qatari Holdings’ assets — estimated at $60 billion, or £38.5 billion, relative to which the mooted price for the club is negligible — mean that refusing to buy the tickets,shirts, pies or programmes won’t matter in the slightest. The fans would, finally, be totally irrelevant; their presence wholly optional.

It is worth remembering that these rumours have surfaced before, back in January, and amounted to nothing. And it is, in a way, a compliment to United that the takeover is mooted; the language in the press indicates that this is viewed as the pinnacle of the Qatari footballing operation, meaning United, in global brand terms at least, are the Koh-i-Noor of football clubs. Yet to see our first and only love reduced to arm candy, a trophy wife to fiscal power, flanked by an owner interested only in the reflected glamour that comes from standing so close to something so beautiful, would be to die inside. Just a little.


3 responses to “My club is bigger than your club”

  1. Great piece. On something I know a bit more about – the flip side (what it means to Qatar and the wider world) this gets even more interesting.

    Even by the very high standards of the Middle East Qatar is a fascinating country. There are lots of reasons why but if you want the 10 second version is that, far more than any other country in the region, its wealth is based upon gas rather than oil. Hideously simplifying: this has two main consequences:

    1 If you want to buy a lot of oil you have to buy it from an oppressive regime with absolutely no sense of shame: your choice is limited to a middle eastern despot or Hugo Chavez. Gas is slightly different. It is not that the regimes in question are any better behaved (Iran- not at all, Russia – no, Turkmenistan – you’ve got to be kidding) but they (Turkmenistan aside) tend to be more diversified, for want of a less patronising phrase: more grown up.

    2 Gas is going to last longer than oil – not much longer (60 years relative to 30) but enough to make a difference. Hugely simplifying again, the first oil sheikdom to run out of oil was always going to be Dubai. Largely thanks to a young Mohammed Al Fayed (the younger Al Fayed was far more intelligent than the looks, words, actions, demeanor, and statue purchasing of the older Al Fayed would suggest) they did diversify their economy in time. But then the global recession hit, it all went tits up, and big brother Abu Dhabi effectively brought them out (with oil money). Since then there seems to be no post-oil plan bar spending money like – ahem – Arab sheiks and bolting to the French Rivera when it all falls apart. Being glib, Qatar has a future, the rest of the Sheikdoms: please please prove me wrong.

    So, the conventional wisdom has it, due to no real altruistic motive but a greater sense of the long term Qatar is the most liberal, the most progressive, the most (urgh) “moderate” nation in the Arab peninsula. Therefore (urgh) “we” must support Qatar against its neighbours – what’s good for Qatar is good for the world, and if we are to have strategic partners in the region (an idea I’ve always thought was hideously reductive in any case – the world just isn’t like that) then Qatar should be they.

    But I think that is gibberish.

    Qatar are less shameless than their neighbours, they have a better understanding of the international consequences of being seen to not give a shit, and they have better PR, but it doesn’t got that further than that – and the idea they they are in any way more liberal, tolerant or democratic doesn’t really bear up to close inspection. The Al Thanis might have more shame than some, but they are still despots, and their public image is a sham.

    Except that doesn’t really get to the nub of the matter either.

    Because one think Qatar genuinely has done far more than any of its neighbours is invest in its academia, its civil society, and its journalism. This is of course a ploy, and an entirely deliberate one – I’d say half the reason we think of Qatar as this liberal oasis is Al Jazeera – but I’d also suggest it is having unintended consequences.

    This is not to say Qatar has freedom of speech – it absolutely doesn’t (Al Jazeera are one of the most impartial and fair news sources in the world on non Qatari issues – although being the wet liberals that they are they did get a bit carried away with the revolutions, but even that was redressing the bias. However on Qatar they hardly ever say anything) – but there is a danger with authoritarians who give people a little information (anyone remember Glasnorst?)and without wanting to go all Nostradamus I do think this makes Qatar’s politics more interesting than its neighbours. Moreover, for as long as Al Jazeera has its external independence, Qatar will at very least ferment liberal rebellion in those neighbours – even if it can’t do so at home.

    So back to football: it is of course because of everything they’ve talked about that Qatar want to own football. And it is because of that last point that I find the idea interesting for Qatar. What I’m trying to say is there is more of a dialogue within and about Qatar than – say – in Saudi which means that
    1 Qatar can bid for the world cup in a way that Saudi can’t
    2 When they win all this debate starts up about freedom and (for example) gay rights in a way which it wouldn’t in Saudi (where there would be more of a shrugging of shoulders)
    3 When all this debate is had, it is actually listened to in Qatar in a way it wouldn’t be in Saudi – not by the rulers who couldn’t give a shit, but by the civil society which will (I hope) one day build the new Qatar.

    So, not really caring which nation wins a football world cup I may not live to see, I was for all that semi-pleased to see it go to Qatar – not for the sake of the bastard in charge, but for the sake of the conversation it would start.

    But that doesn’t make him any less of a bastard – and so the Barcelona and the Man U stuff still really pisses me off.

  2. I didn’t mean to belittle your brilliant article when I said more interesting. I just meant more interesting to me

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