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.