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Football Belongs to the Fans

The looming Qatari takeover of Manchester United underlines how football clubs are now the playthings of oligarchs and repressive regimes. It's time to reclaim the game and fight for fan ownership.

(McDonald/Getty Images)

In the 18 years since they took control of Manchester United, the Glazer family have become a byword for cynicism. In 2005, Malcolm Glazer completed a leveraged buyout of the club, saddling it with hundreds of millions of pounds in debt and eye-watering interest payments.

There was fierce opposition to the takeover from supporters, many steeped in the traditions of Manchester’s radical history, with some breaking away to form FC United of Manchester, a fan-owned club which continues to attract those disillusioned with the Glazers’ ownership to this day. In the end, though—as has so often happened in English football—fans’ protests were ignored, and the authorities shrugged their shoulders and looked away.

The club now, compared to then, is almost unrecognisable. While Alex Ferguson kept the winning machine whirring until his retirement from management in 2013, continuing to pile up the silverware which had made the club so valuable to the Glazers in the first place, United have been in steep decline ever since. Despite a tentative upturn since the arrival of Erik ten Hag last year, with United winning the League Cup—their first trophy in six years—at the weekend, the club with the most league titles in English football has not won the Premier League in a decade. Regardless, since 2016, Malcolm Glazer’s six children—who retained his majority shareholding when he died in 2014, split equally—have taken over £150 million in dividends.

It has been estimated that, all in all, the Glazers’ ownership has cost the club £1.5 billion in interest, dividends and other outgoings. Meanwhile, Old Trafford, United’s stadium, has been allowed to fall into disrepair and is now in urgent need of renovation. The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) have described the club’s huge debt as being ‘hung around our neck like a millstone’, accusing the Glazers of taking ‘hundreds of millions out over a prolonged period of time, during which the club has been failing’. To make matters worse Joel and Avram Glazer, United’s executive co-chairmen, were central to the attempted European Super League breakaway in 2021, inspiring a fresh wave of protests against them—after which they backed down—and cementing their legacy as some of the most unpopular owners in the game.

As such, it’s little wonder that, when the Glazers announced their openness to selling the club in November, there was much celebration. Going back to 2005 and then all through the green-and-gold protests of the last decade, where fans wore the colours of United’s forerunners Newton Heath as a symbol of their original values, the Glazers have come to represent the antithesis of what the club—and football more broadly—is meant to be about. Their exit would be the culmination of a gruelling, hard-fought struggle by supporters. Whether it would be a decisive victory in the battle for the club’s soul is another question.

Of the two declared bids for United, one is fronted by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, a member of the Qatari elite, and the other by Jim Ratcliffe, the chairman of petrochemicals company INEOS who is often credited as Britain’s richest man. Beyond the fact that he is the son of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, a former Qatari prime minister, and the chairman of the Qatari Islamic Bank, which boasts the Qatar Investment Authority—that is, the country’s sovereign wealth fund—as a major shareholder, Sheikh Jassim is a low-profile figure.

That has fuelled suspicions that he is the face of a de facto bid by the Qatari state, though his publicists have suggested he is simply a wealthy private individual who supports the club. As with the last World Cup, any takeover linked to Qatar itself will inevitably draw widespread criticism over the Gulf state’s authoritarian government, poor human rights record, treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory policies against women and LGBTQ+ people. Some fans’ groups have already sounded the alarm, with a MUST statement released last month stressing the importance of having an owner who ‘respects the rights of all people’. The Rainbow Devils, United’s LGBTQ+ supporters’ group, have expressed ‘deep concern over some of the bids that are being made’.

INEOS, meanwhile, has been accused of ‘greenwashing’ by environmental groups and using its investment in sport as a cover for its vast fossil fuel consumption, carbon emissions and status as a major climate polluter. In 2020 Ratcliffe went into tax exile in Monaco, a move estimated to have saved him billions of pounds. Then there is the fact that INEOS already owns OGC Nice in France, a club that could feasibly meet United in European competitions in future, which could cause a potential conflict with UEFA over rules on multi-club ownership. Likewise, the Qatar Investment Authority—which, coincidentally, was once headed by Sheikh Jassim’s father—has a subsidiary, Qatar Sports Investments, through which it owns Paris Saint-Germain.

While battle lines have been drawn among United’s online fanbase and the debate over which prospective owner is preferable has descended into predictable viciousness, the truth is that, ethics aside, neither bidder comes with a guarantee of running the club well. Though Qatar has spent grotesque sums of money transforming PSG into a video game dream team featuring Lionel Messi, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe, establishing a shaky dominance over French football, the ultimate ambition of winning the Champions League has gone up in smoke time and again. Since Ratcliffe bought Nice in 2019, the club’s strategy has come under intense scrutiny and the team have been highly inconsistent.

The Premier League is stuck in this cycle of ownership. Whenever a club is put up for sale, the bidders almost invariably include repressive nation states—via sovereign wealth funds or willing accomplices—dubious billionaires, hedge funds intent on extracting maximum profit or opaque consortiums.

While some clearly see state backing as leading to certain success, it is not the sure thing it may seem. As noted in last month’s government white paper on football governance—the long-delayed follow up to the fan-led review published in 2021—geopolitics is unpredictable and ‘where clubs are heavily owner-funded, funding comes from a more risky source, or is not diversified, clubs are more susceptible and less resilient to shocks’. As shown by the sanctions against Roman Abramovich and the precarious situation in which they left Chelsea, even the richest owners are not immune to geopolitical shifts.

While the white paper is the result of tireless lobbying by fan groups and is certainly an improvement on the free-market free-for-all which has prevailed until now—with an independent regulator, an enhanced owners’ and directors’ test and protection of club heritage among its big pledges—the government have confirmed that it would not block a Qatar-led takeover of United. There is no mention of human rights in the document, even if owners and directors are to be tested on ‘integrity [and] honesty’ alongside their finances and, in a move which could embarrass state proxies, clubs will have to declare their ultimate beneficial owner.

The fan-led review stopped short of advocating for more widespread supporter ownership and giving supporters direct democratic control of their clubs along the lines of the 50+1 rule in Germany, by which, for a club to participate in the Bundesliga, it —and so its members, or supporters—must hold the majority of its own voting rights. When it came to 50+1, the review concluded that it was ‘not realistically achievable in English football’ as ‘the cost involved in creating the model in England would be in the billions’. The authors of the white paper were keen to stress that they did not intend to ‘deter investment’ from wealthy private interests. For those who have followed English football’s direction of travel in recent decades, it’s hard not to feel that some forms of investment really ought to be deterred.

The fact that more radical ownership reform remains unrealised doesn’t mean that fans should stop fighting for stronger democratic representation and a stake in their clubs. MUST have a stated aim of establishing ‘a meaningful supporter ownership stake… ideally alongside likeminded major investors to give the optimum mix’. In an open letter to potential bidders published in December, co-signed by almost 150 other fan groups and supporters’ club branches, they called for ‘shared ownership with the fans as partners’. There is no reason to think that kind of hybrid ownership model, with fans potentially increasing their shareholding over time, would not be viable, not least given United have tens of millions of supporters globally.

For all the superficial arguments in favour of a Qatar-led takeover, United don’t need a financial cheat code. The club is one of the most famous sporting institutions of the modern era on its own merits and has near-limitless commercial potential which, even with the Glazers’ debt-laden ownership dragging it down, allows for huge expenditure on transfers and could be used to improve its infrastructure. To start with, the club needs to be able to reinvest the full extent of its resources for its own benefit. That requires better custodianship. Fans having a greater share in the club would be no bad thing in that regard.

Ultimately, for as long as fans are on the outside looking in as their clubs are bartered away without their input, the Premier League will remain stuck in the same cycle. While last month’s white paper is a promising development, future governments should look to build on its foundations and further democratise the game. United would be most secure in the hands of the people who love the club, not those intent on using it as a geopolitical pawn or a sponge to be squeezed for profit. The same goes for every other great bastion of English football.