The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Jim White

Back in Novem­ber, a photo emerged of Avram Glazer, co-owner of Manch­ester United, meet­ing Saudi politi­cians in Riyadh. Im­me­di­ately, so­cial me­dia thrummed with ru­mours that the Glaz­ers were ne­go­ti­at­ing a sale of their as­set to Saudi in­ter­ests, ru­mours that were quickly chal­lenged by the club, which in­sisted Glazer was there sim­ply to ad­dress a busi­ness con­fer­ence.

By the time you read this, Crown Prince Mo­hammed Bin Sal­man might al­ready be in­stalled in the Old Traf­ford board­room. But even if the stren­u­ous de­nials were true, it can surely only be a mat­ter of time be­fore the Saudis buy up a lead­ing Euro­pean foot­ball club. In­deed, you have to won­der why MBS and his courtiers haven’t al­ready snapped one up. Par­tic­u­larly as their re­gional ri­vals Qatar and Abu Dhabi have done so.

Paris Saint-ger­main and Manch­ester City have been ut­terly trans­formed by their Mid­dle Eastern own­ers, turned into proper play­ers in the game, se­rial do­mes­tic cham­pi­ons and in­creas­ingly prom­i­nent in wider com­pe­ti­tion. The in­vest­ment re­quired to turn the av­er­age into con­tenders is eye-wa­ter­ing but, for the regimes be­hind the trans­for­ma­tion, the re­sults have been spec­tac­u­lar.

The Arabs are not in the game for the same rea­sons as other in­ter­na­tional own­ers. The Amer­i­cans have largely be­come in­volved in English foot­ball to make money. The Chi­nese and the Rus­sians are in it for the busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties. For the Arabs, foot­ball rep­re­sents soft power, the chance to pro­mote them­selves on the world stage, to help de­velop a post-oil econ­omy. And to engage in diplo­matic white­wash­ing.

Visit Manch­ester City’s Eti­had Sta­dium on match day and the place is in­fused in a sunny benev­o­lence. From the ad­ver­tis­ing hoard­ings sug­gest­ing you might hol­i­day in Abu Dhabi to the huge ban­ner in­sist­ing that ‘Manch­ester thanks Sheikh Man­sour’, you would never for a mo­ment guess that Abu Dhabi is one of the most bru­tally re­pres­sive regimes, where dis­sent is sup­pressed with a swish of the cer­e­mo­nial sword.

Nor on a visit to PSG’S Parc des Princes would you think of Qatar as any­thing other than the classi­est, smartest, most so­phis­ti­cated of places. There is no hint that this is a coun­try that treats for­eign work­ers con­struct­ing its World Cup in­fra­struc­ture as ex­pend­able com­modi­ties.

And, as the re­sponse to the ru­mours of Saudi takeover im­plied, there are many happy for their club to be used as a gi­ant rep­u­ta­tional laun­dro­mat. Plenty of fans reck­oned they would have no prob­lem if United be­came a pro­mo­tional ve­hi­cle for a vile, mur­der­ous theocracy as long as the Saudis funded a few Cham­pi­ons League ti­tles and sorted out Old Traf­ford’s woe­ful Wi-fi. Sure, it may not be im­mi­nent – it may not even be at United – but Saudi in­volve­ment in Euro­pean foot­ball on a big scale is only a mat­ter of time. If there is noth­ing the game re­spects more than cash, no one has more cause for re­spect than the Saudis.

It may well be true that clubs have long been the play­thing of the wealthy but, in the past, it was the lo­cal butcher, garage owner or tele­vi­sion rental mag­nate who ran the place. Not a regime that pro­motes in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism, ex­ports a strain of re­li­gious big­otry that makes the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion look lib­eral, and uses over­seas diplo­matic premises to ar­range the sav­age mur­der of its own cit­i­zenry.

With the Saudis on the hori­zon, sup­port­ing your near­est non-league club as they strug­gle in the bot­tom reaches of the Evo-stik North­ern Premier League sud­denly seems a more palat­able prospect.

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