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.