As the soft deadline for formal bids for Manchester United looms later this month there are expected to be a number of groups in the mix.
The Old Trafford side were put up for sale back in November by the Glazer family, just days after Liverpool owners Fenway Sports Group had revealed that they were seeking a partial sale of the club but were open to divesting their interest in the club should the right offer come along.
Little has materially changed on that front for Liverpool since November. A number of potential suitors have been linked to talks but sources in the US close to the situation have maintained to the ECHO that there have been no firm bids or expressions of interest made to top brass, although with the United sale now hotting up there could be some concrete interest heading in the direction of FSG in the coming weeks.
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Of those to have been heavily linked to Liverpool is that of Qatari investment, with the sovereign wealth fund Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), Paris Saint-Germain owners Qatar Sports Investments (QSI) and private funds and investors, including telecommunications firm Ooredoo all having been linked at some stage during the process.
There is an element of truth to the Qatari links in that the Gulf nation is on the lookout for a football investment in 2023 to build on the profile of the nation after the success of the 2022 World Cup. There is a desire to diversify revenue streams and not be as reliant on oil and gas, and strategic investments in globally renowned assets like Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur, three clubs who are open to investment or an outright sale, provides a gateway to potentially beneficial investments for Qatar as a nation.
It is Manchester United where the Qatari interest has been focused and where it has emerged concrete, though. Bids are anticipated from the nation for the club, with a private investment vehicle likely to be the means used for such a play, especially given the headaches in unpicking the QSI/PSG relationship that would arise from such a move.
It is important to state that QSI and QIA, while having strong connections to Government and the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, a Manchester United fan, they are independent of one another and could engage in separate purchases of a football club if they so wished, although it would likely be a move that would come under some level of scrutiny to ensure enough separation remained given the simpatico nature of the relationship between the two.
But any deal for Manchester United, even if it were through a private investment vehicle, which is what has been suggested given that it would be able to align the interests of a number of parties from the nation, would almost certainly need the blessing of the Emir and would most definitely need to satisfy the greater interests of government with regards to its geopolitical ambitions. It goes far beyond simple trophy assets or allegations of reputation laundering through sport, something that has been levelled at nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia due to their human rights records.
While possible for another Qatari investor group to come forward for Liverpool at the same time as Manchester United, it is a play that seems unlikely, and one that given the starter pistol has been fired for the sale of United through formal expressions of interest being received, would not be something that would happen swiftly while another investor from the nation attempts to negotiate a £5bn-plus deal for a competing asset. If they were unsuccessful with their Manchester United play then maybe the situation with Liverpool could change, but with FSG likely to start receiving their own expressions of interest, and with a partial sale still a preference, that chance may not arise.
"Anyone in Qatar with the level of wealth needed to acquire Manchester United would inevitably have strong links to the state," Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at the SKEMA Business School told the ECHO.
"To engage in such a transaction, especially in moving significant sums of money across international boundaries would require state approval. There are some corporations that might have the financial resources, for instance telecommunications provider Ooredoo. But here, too, there are strong links to the government, as indeed there are amongst most of Qatar's biggest businesses.
"It is worth noting that QSI and QIA are, technically, different organisations - they are clear and distinct from one another, so it is conceivable that QSI could own PSG and QIA could own a Premier League club. But, both of them have close links to government. If a Qatari investor is in pursuit of Liverpool and Manchester United, one senses that the Premier League's Owners and Directors Test and UEFA’s FFP regulations can look forward to a robust workout i.e. what is the Qatari state, and what is the Qatari non-state?"
There is undoubted interest in Liverpool, but that interest has yet to crystallise into something real that FSG chiefs have needed to make a call on or hold high level meetings over.
The initial desire for FSG to test the market was born from the indication from some minority partners that they may be willing to divest their interest that would present the opportunity to recapitalise the business, and with the Chelsea sale having sparked major interest globally and its value reach £2.5bn, it was seen as an ideal time to go on something of a fishing exercise.
The interest in a partial sale remains, as does the willingness to listen to offers over and above their $4bn-plus valuation of the football club. There could be some more formal interest over the next couple of months, how it manifests could well find itself impacted by how Manchester United's own sale process pans out.
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