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The Guardian - US
The Guardian - US
Aaron Timms

Jim Ratcliffe, Manchester United and the myth of the spotless billionaire

Jim Ratcliffe will buy an initial 25% stake in Manchester United and assume sporting control.
Jim Ratcliffe will buy an initial 25% stake in Manchester United and assume sporting control. Composite: Guardian design/Getty

When Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani withdrew from the race to buy Manchester United last month, you could almost hear the sighs of relief emanating from the press department on Sir Matt Busby Way.

A Qatari takeover, despite the appeal and simplicity of Sheikh Jassim’s all-cash offer, would be sure to face fierce criticism – not only on the basis of Qatar’s enduringly appalling human rights record, but as further proof of oil money’s deepening incursion into global soccer’s most sacred places. With this ethical conundrum out of the way, the path is now clear for a much easier publicity sell: Manchester United looks set to fall into the care of a footballing humanitarian who presents the unique advantage of being both obscenely rich and unimpeachably English. Finally, the self-styled biggest club on the planet will be yanked away from the pesky Americans, snatched from the slick hands of the Gulf, and come to nestle at the top of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s corporate crown – pending a final buyout of the Glazers’ remaining 75% stake. A victory, at last, for clean money, good money, English money.

Never mind that Ratcliffe – or “Sir Jim”, as seemingly every pundit commenting on the takeover appears contractually obliged to refer to him – is a ruthless petrochemicals billionaire with a record of tax avoidance, union busting, and doing whatever it takes to benefit his own bottom line. He’s one of us, and that’s what counts. As things stand today, Ratcliffe will most likely pay about $1.5bn for an initial 25% stake in Manchester United, which will give him direct control over football operations and a theoretical runway to full ownership of the club in the years ahead.

Public discussion of the takeover has fixated on three facts to the exclusion of virtually anything else: Ratcliffe, the founder and majority owner of privately held chemicals company Ineos, is rich, British, and a genuine Manchester United fan. “He’s Britain’s richest man, Ineos have huge huge revenues,” said Manchester United fan TV personality Flex in a representative Sky Sports segment earlier this year. “He’s a Manchester United fan, that’s very warming, that’s very nice to know. The fact that he’s a fan is good, that would suggest he’s going to align with what the fans want, with what the fans have been missing from the Glazers.” All of which is well and good, but what about the rest?

To the minimal extent that Ratcliffe’s bid has attracted any kind of criticism, it’s been for its failure to immediately rid the club of the hated Glazer family, whose two decades of administrative incompetence have transformed the most ruthlessly efficient machine in the Premier League into the footballing equivalent of scrap metal. There have, in fairness, been some vague rumblings of discontent over the patchy record of performance registered by other sporting franchises Ineos owns, in particular the football club Nice. But otherwise the bid appears to be sailing through without serious examination.

Ratcliffe – whose personal fortune is estimated at about $18.1bn, making him the world’s 105th richest person – has said he will only use his own money to buy the club, reassuring Ineos investors who fear a cut to their dividend payouts. There’s no question he has a genuine attachment to Manchester United, but it’s not so deep that he didn’t also throw his hat into the ring to buy Chelsea last year; growing up on a council estate and childhood trips to Old Trafford counted for nothing when he was gunning for a spot in the Stamford Bridge executive suite. Ratcliffe failed with a similar foot-in-the-door strategy to buy 50% of Barcelona, before shifting his attention to Old Trafford.

Though Ratcliffe may be no “plastic”, in another sense he very obviously is: this is, after all, a man whose day job is making plastics. There’s a paronomastic pleasure, I suppose, in the spectacle of Ratcliffe potentially becoming the world’s first football club owner who happens to be a plastics-producing non-plastic. But this should not blind us to the reality of who he is, and what his company represents. Ratcliffe began his career at Exxon Mobil, and formed Ineos in 1998 to lead the £84m buyout of a Belgian chemical plant. In the quarter century since, Ineos has evolved into a sprawling multi-market empire with combined sales of roughly $65bn. The company’s core business remains petrochemicals – substances like cumene, acrylonitrile, and polyethylene that are manipulated to make the plastics, resins, and composites that go into objects and products we all use every day. Almost all of these compounds are derived from fossil fuels.

According to researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Kleinman Center for Energy Policy, the global plastic waste crisis represents the second greatest developing environmental catastrophe after climate change: “The petrochemical industry will represent a significant source of emissions and pollution long after the decarbonization of global energy systems,” they wrote in a recent report.

Just as the global transition to renewables is finally beginning to take shape, Ratcliffe’s company has staked its business future on our continuing addiction to dirty energy. Ineos has had its hand in every slimy extraction trick of the past two decades, from shale gas to fracking, and Ratcliffe has made billions as global energy prices have soared in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Today Ineos owns 16 ocean tankers whose sole purpose is to ferry ethane from the US to Europe. He may not lead a ghoulish autocracy that stones adulterers to death and criminalizes homosexuality, but let’s not delude ourselves: Ratcliffe’s riches are every bit as grubby, every bit as lethal to the planet, as the gushers of cash pouring from the sovereign funds of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

From its base in petrochemicals, Ineos has expanded into a surprisingly diverse array of consumer brands; Ratcliffe’s business tentacles now spread into everything from cars to clothing and hand soap. When John Corbett made his recent screen reappearance as the character Aidan on Sex and the City reboot And Just Like That, the $595 belted jacket he was widely mocked for wearing in his opening scene came courtesy of an Ineos-owned apparel line. In his personality and politics, as in the products his companies sell, Ratcliffe projects a kind of houndstooth English machismo: it’s there in the souped-up Jeep he’s shilling as the answer to the lost British glory of the Range Rover, in the Brexiteering, in the elevated, modern “takes” on indigenous culinary classics that fill the menu at his west London pub.

Manchester United fans display banners in protest against the Glazer family’s ownership of the club.
Manchester United fans display banners in protest against the Glazer family’s ownership of the club. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters

Both Ratcliffe’s pub and the Jeep he’s designed bear the name “Grenadier”, a choice that suggests a nostalgia for the time when Britannia lobbed the bombs and ruled the waves. In keeping with this patriotic theme, Ratcliffe’s career has been built on a classically English mixture of self-interest and hypocrisy. He’s consistently styled himself as a champion of British business and jobs, but he’s been merciless in the face of workplace demands – most notoriously when he humiliated union organizers at the Grangemouth oil refinery in 2013.

Ratcliffe pushed hard to get fracking projects off the ground in the UK, then shifted his focus to the US – in February Ineos closed a $1.4 billion deal to begin shale gas production in south Texas – once the political winds moved against him. He received a knighthood in 2018 – for services to business and investment – after he made a big splash of relocating Ineos’s headquarters to London from Geneva, then left for Monaco two years later to avoid having to make a full contribution to the UK’s tax base.

Wherever he goes, Ratcliffe coughs away the critics, scoops up the spoils, and socializes the costs. Not only is this a modus operandi that sounds disturbingly similar to the one followed by the Glazers during their tenure at Manchester United; in many ways it’s also a microcosm of the way in which the wealthy dictate our reality, a kind of blind psychosis under which all benefits are absorbed and all consequences ignored.

In contrast to the outrage that greeted recent takeovers of big clubs throughout Europe by the Gulf states, Ratcliffe’s impending conquest of Carrington has been met with the media equivalent of a pat on the back. On the one hand, this represents a clear case of selective moralism: stomping on unions might be a bloody business, but at least it’s bloody British. On the other, we all make do with the best rich guy we can find now.

For Manchester United fans suffering through yet another moribund team performance in which the defense remains incurably Maguirish, Mason Mount cardboards on to the field after 63 minutes to no effect, Antony loses the ball while cutting in from the right, and Erik ten Hag surveys the unfolding disaster in stiff-jawed silence from the sidelines, like a turtleneck condemned to the clothing bin, “Won’t someone think of the carbon footprint?” may seem like a meek line of attack against the club’s would-be savior. Any change in corporate control with the potential to deliver us all from the ambling abomination of a Fernandes-McTominay-Eriksen midfield is surely a good thing.

It’s no secret that money – the type of big money that has flooded the sport since the turn of the century, the money of hundred-million-pound transfers and triple-digit ticket prices – has changed global soccer. The big European clubs are the plaything of the ultra-affluent now, and there’s no such thing as a spotless billionaire: beyond a certain level of wealth, you only get rich by climbing over the bodies of the poor. Complaints about the respective ethical merits of billionaire acquirers of football clubs can occasionally take on an aridly pedantic quality. If you thought a Middle East nation’s record on LGBTQ rights was so terrible, how come you’ve had nothing to say about a hedge fund’s use of GP-led secondaries to boost liquidity and artificially inflate returns??

And yet. Every owner deserves to be scrutinized, and some – like Manchester United’s putative new ruler, the petrochemical king who loves fracking, humiliates unions, and is jauntily doing his bit to accelerate planetary suicide – deserve it more than others.

It remains a sign of how broken global soccer’s moral compass is that the prospect of Ratcliffe foxing into the henhouse to grab Manchester United has met with barely a squawk of dissent. As football fans, we’re all hostage to this idea of administration now, to rule by absolute monarchy. We’re all looking – mournfully, hopefully, desperately – for an Abramovich, a Boehly, a Ratcliffe to call our own.

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