Doha, Qatar – Avram Glazer sat in the stands last month to watch Manchester United lift their first trophy in six years.
United’s English League Cup victory over Newcastle could well be the club’s last trophy owned by the Glazer family.
Avram’s celebrations were met with protests just a few rows in front of him. Some disgruntled fans emphatically waved a banner reading “Glazers Out” at the American businessman in a persistent demand that his family be removed from the helm of the club.
In November, the Glazer family put the club up for sale after nearly 18 tumultuous years of ownership.
British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, the founder and head of the INEOS chemicals conglomerate, submitted a bid to take 69 percent ownership of the club, the same percentage owned by the Glazers.
The other highest bid seeks full ownership and was submitted by Qatari businessman Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, the son of a former Qatari prime minister and chairman of a major Qatari bank.
Both parties were invited to submit revised bids by Wednesday night, but the deadline was extended due to confusion between the current owners and the interested parties.
Jassim’s Nine Two Foundation press release promised a bright future for the club if successful, including “investment in the football teams, training centre, stadium and wider infrastructure, fan experience and the communities the club supports”. .
His bid to take over one of the most popular football clubs in the world follows Qatar hosting the World Cup last year and winning the right to host the Asian Games in 2030.
Jassim’s bid comes as no surprise to pundits, who say it is in line with his country’s ambition to be seen as a sporting powerhouse.
His interest in Manchester United suggests that Qatar is embarking on the next phase of its ambition, according to Ross Griffin, an assistant professor at the University of Qatar whose research interests include the portrayal of the Arab world in Western media and the relationship between sport and include postcolonial society. .
“Qatar’s ambition (in sport) falls into two branches,” he said. The first will continue to focus on hosting sporting events in Qatar, such as the Asian Cup in 2024 and the Asian Games in 2030, while the possible purchase of a Premier League football club would be part of the second branch.
Griffin said that by hosting the FIFA World Cup last year, Qatar was able to showcase Arab society to the Western world in a way that changed preconceptions about the region. “They think we brought over a million people to Qatar and they got a close look at our culture and society, so now let’s bring Qatar to the world,” he said.
Ambitions for the future of the club
Jassim also wants to be associated with the club he followed.
Jassim’s bid was submitted through his Nine Two Foundation, the name being a clear nod to Manchester United’s famous “class of 92” side, who won several titles in the 1990s. It is also the year Jassim reportedly started supporting the club.
He has revealed high ambitions for the future of the men’s and women’s teams at all levels. According to the Nine Two Foundation press release, the debt-free offer “plans to return the club to its former glory, both on and off the pitch”.
Griffin believes that because “you don’t have to invest billions to establish the brand” of such a well-known football club, more money could instead be put into rebuilding the team’s Old Trafford Stadium, improving the Carrington training facilities and, most importantly, investing in the local community.
“If you want to bring Qatar to the UK, you have to show Qatar all the positive things it can do,” he said. “You integrate yourself as part of the fabric and the community.”
“Qatar’s greatest asset is that it is very well-endowed financially,” the professor said, “and it will use that money to build a positive rapport, something the Glazers never did.
“Over the years, the Glazers have taken money and brought it across the Atlantic, but Qatar says it will do the opposite by investing back into the community.”
The city of Manchester in the North West of England is no stranger to Arab football. In 2008, Manchester City, United’s city rivals, was bought by a business group backed by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates.
About 150 miles to the north is another English football club, Newcastle United, owned by a consortium led by a Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund that took over in 2021.
However, some Manchester United fans have rejected Jassim’s bid as an attempt to “sport” Qatar’s human rights record, which has been questioned by Western media in the years leading up to the World Cup and during the tournament.
A group of the club’s supporters expressed their displeasure with Jassim’s bid during United’s Premier League match against Southampton on 12 March, holding a banner reading: “No Qatari sports wash at United!”
However, some experts said that the influx of capital from the Gulf region into international sport is not linked to image-building or “sportswashing”.
“This is not about soft power. It’s about money and governance,” said Craig LaMay, director of the journalism and strategic communications program at Northwestern University’s Qatar campus.
LaMay, co-author of the book Football in the Middle East, said: “The Gulf Arab states are among the few countries that have the money and are in a unique position to fund these huge sporting ambitions – from club ownership to the Olympics to the World Cup.”
He said the oil and gas-rich Gulf states will continue to invest in football “as long as international sports organizations need funding for their competitions,” which in turn will help these states increase their international visibility.
“Football and other sports have always focused on the West as their institutions, and the governing bodies are based there,” LaMay said. “Being challenged by new owners and investors from a different region, the global governance of sport could also change. There will be resentment from those who relinquish power and their hold as well.”
Another group of Manchester United fans have expressed concern over the bidder’s “close links” to the Qatari state and the club’s possible association with a state directly linked to French club Paris Saint-Germain through its shareholder organization Qatar Sports Investment (QSI).
“There are questions about sporting integrity given the exceptionally close links between this bidder and the owners of other European clubs, including PSG,” the Manchester United Supporters Trust said in a statement after the initial bid was made.
The rules of UEFA, the governing body of European football, stipulate that no two clubs may participate in the same competition if they are directly or indirectly controlled by the same ownership group.
With both Manchester United and PSG at the top of their respective domestic leagues, a meeting between them could arise if they qualify for the UEFA Champions League or Europa League. Although QSI is a subsidiary of a sovereign wealth fund in Qatar, the Nine Two Foundation has not stated any explicit ties to the state.
Others, meanwhile, have taken to social media to express their relief that the club can finally change hands from its unpopular American owners. They link this relief to expectations that the move would bring a change in fortunes for the club’s trophy cabinet, which had not been replenished for six years until last month’s League Cup victory.
They have welcomed promises to invest back into the club and restore it to its former glory. For them it can be an investment that helps to put the club back on the map.
In terms of what is to be gained for the state of Qatar, Griffin said the answer is simple:
“Qatar is associated with one of the most glamorous football clubs in the world, a powerful brand, a multi-million dollar army on social media and a global presence that cannot be put on a price tag.”