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Will Manchester United become football’s latest Gulf-backed project?

Prospective new owners of Manchester United have until Friday to reveal their interest in buying one of the world’s biggest clubs, with the British press reporting a bid from Qatar which, if successful, will send shockwaves through European football.

United’s current American owners, the Glazer family, opened the door to fresh investment in the English giants in November, either in the form of a minority stake or a full takeover.

Deeply unpopular with supporters since they saddled the club with huge debts in a £790 million ($961m) leveraged takeover in 2005, the Glazers are ready to cash out their chips at an enormous profit.

According to reports, they are seeking £6 billion for the three-time European champions, which would smash the record fee for a football club set by Chelsea last year.

A consortium led by LA Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and private equity firm Clearlake Capital paid £2.5 billion for the Blues with a further £1.75 billion promised in further investment in infrastructure and players.

To date only British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe, owner of petrochemicals giant Ineos which also controls French club Nice, has come forward publicly as a potential buyer for United.

But reports of a bid backed by Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, refuse to go away.

PSG power and influence

Qatar already wields plenty of influence in European football’s corridors of power.

Paris Saint-Germain have dominated French football since a takeover by Qatar Sports Investments—a subsidiary of the state’s sovereign wealth fund—in 2011 and lured some of the game’s biggest stars such as Lionel Messi, Kylian Mbappe and Neymar to the Parc des Princes.

Nasser al-Khelaifi, president of PSG, is also chairman of the powerful European Club Association.

Just months after hosting the 2022 World Cup, a successful Qatari bid would give the Gulf state pride of place in the Premier League — the world’s most-watched domestic competition.

“Qatar’s investment into PSG has been tremendously successful but no other sporting league in the world has so much global exposure as the EPL (English Premier League),” said Danyel Reiche, associate professor of international relations at Georgetown University’s Qatar campus.

“Therefore, acquiring Manchester United would totally make sense.”

Ownership of United could also offer Qatar the chance to take bragging rights over gulf neighbours Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia’s stakes in English football.

Abu Dhabi’s investment in Manchester City has transformed them into the Premier League’s dominant force, winning six titles in the last 11 seasons.

Newcastle United are flying high in fourth and into the League Cup final for the first time in 47 years just 16 months after a takeover from the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.

But neither City or Newcastle boast United’s tradition of 20 English titles and a massive global fanbase.

“The Gulf investments into European football clubs cannot be seen in pure economic terms. They serve the purpose of nation branding and as an international relations tool,” added Reiche.

“The rivalry between two countries in just one town, with Manchester City being owned by the UAE and Manchester United by Qatar, would be a new escalation in the rivalry between two countries with recently worsened relations.”

Regulatory hurdles

A Qatari bid would have a series of regulatory hurdles to clear.

Amnesty International have called on the Premier League to tighten ownership rules to ensure they are “human rights-compliant and not an opportunity for more sportswashing.”

But the precedent set in green-lighting investment from Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia make it highly unlikely the Premier League would block a takeover.

UEFA’s rules that preclude two clubs being “directly or indirectly” controlled by the same entity from competing in the Champions League may be more troublesome.

A source with knowledge of the bid insisted to AFP that the bidders are not connected to the owners of PSG.

“The most important thing is that the potential bidder is neither QSI nor QIA (the Qatar Investment Authority sovereign wealth fund), it is a completely different fund,” the source said.

Trying to draw a distinction between Qatari-based funds will be met with scepticism from rival clubs.

However, Germany’s RB Leipzig and Austrian champions Salzburg have found a way around UEFA’s rules and have been able to participate in the same competition despite both being backed by Red Bull.

United have been in the doldrums since former manager Alex Ferguson signed off at Old Trafford with the club’s last league title a decade ago.

The Red Devils have not won any trophy for six years and failed to qualify for this season’s Champions League.

Friday’s deadline for bids to come forward could herald the start of a successful new era on the field fuelled by Qatar’s oil and gas wealth.

It remains to be seen, however, how fans of the Old Trafford club would react if a Qatari bid got the green light.

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