Manchester United sale: Intertwined Qatari ownership would make the club a flagship for sports washing states

With just under two hours to go until Glazer’s soft deadline for Manchester United bids, it was the second hard development in this process – and one that should be very difficult to register for the big game. Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani confirmed his interest in buying 100 per cent of the club, to go with Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s interest.

Associated sources and reports in France indicated that the Al Thani offer is around €5bn (£4.45bn). That would make it shorter than Glazer’s wishes, which was expected at this point, a stage described by insiders as “hardly the opening salvo”. There was naturally chatter of a third bid, close to the 10pm UK deadline.

While the Qatari offer shocked some parties who had considered getting involved – never expecting “a credible bid from the Middle East” – industry sources told the independent this would be successful on Thursday, supported this view and already described Al Thani’s interest as the “favourite”.

Much will depend on how this auction develops, and much is unclear.

Another element that has been obscured is the exact links between Al Thani and the Qatari state – which should provoke some of the biggest questions surrounding this process and for the Premier League.

Figures from Qatari Sports Investments (QSI) – which owns Paris Saint-Germain – and the Qatar Investments Authority (QIA) insisted on Friday night that this had nothing to do with their funds and represented a “private” bid, but it is a description that human rights workers find “ridiculous” in a state like Qatar.

Before you get to anything else, it’s a semi-constitutional monarchy, where the Emir – a long-time Manchester United fan, it’s said – exercises “full executive power”. In other words, all roads lead to the top, and a bid on this scale would naturally require state sanction.

Those are the details of Al Thani’s career. One prominent football executive was almost incredulous at the argument, saying “this is not complicated, his name is Al Thani, that of the ruling family”.

The son of the former prime minister, the 40-year-old’s biography proudly describes him as chairman of Qatar Islamic Bank (QIB). The largest single shareholder in QIB is QIA, the state’s sovereign wealth fund. Al Thani’s father was the former head of QIA between 2007 and 2013. It is at this point that the discussion warrants much more depth than Al Thani’s plans to restore the club to its “former glory”.

Since “sports laundering” is really about influence and appropriation of institutions, and never nearly as simplistic as PR or image, it is difficult not to describe this takeover attempt as the next step in development.

We are several levels beyond hosting international tournaments at this point.

That makes it all the more incredible, and a complete indictment, that the Premier League did not take the chance to upgrade its owners and directors in terms of government bodies and influence. They had plenty of opportunities and warnings in the 16 months since the Newcastle United takeover, and Amnesty International UK says they are still awaiting a follow-up from a meeting in October 2021. The fact that their two best-known institutions, United and Liverpool , was put up for sale at the same time should have only raised the alarm bells.

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It can now leave the doomed situation where three of the Premier League’s clubs are either owned or influenced by the three major states that most immediately ran the Gulf blockade. This supposedly great English competition would have been reserved for a political rivalry that takes in far more serious themes, not to mention the highly criticized human rights records of these states.

It should be a landmark for the game, but we’re already way past that.

You only have to look at the news from earlier this week about how this road was allowed – and the possibility of this takeover was even allowed.

The takeover of the public investment fund by Newcastle was ridiculed because the consortium was supposedly able to offer “legally binding assurances” that there would be separation between the body and the Saudi state. That “fantasy” – as one human rights activist declared it at the time – was rendered just that when the PIF actually argued in a US court that they should receive sovereign immunity from having to hand over information related to LIV Golf’s legal battle with the PGA of which they were a part the Saudi government.

It’s a wonder how the Premier League would have handled this matter if the regulations were even marginally upgraded – but they weren’t.

However, it may raise a question about Uefa. PSG is owned by QSI, which is of course a subsidiary of QIA. If Al Thani’s bid is successful, Uefa’s ownership rules could potentially mean United and PSG cannot play in the same continental competition, as many inside the game argued on Friday night. And yet there was already confidence that this would not represent an obstacle.

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Uefa can of course seek to consult the European Club Association on this matter. But the president is also the president of PSG, and the chairman of QSI, not to mention a figure close to the Emir of Qatar: Nasser Al-Khelaifi.

You can begin to see why LaLiga president Javier Tebas described the PSG boss as having “too many conflicts of interest”. You can also see the end point of the game and how it got into this mess.

There is now a real possibility that English football’s biggest institution will become the biggest club yet to represent a sports laundry project.

In that context, they could win everything and it wouldn’t matter.

You can solemnly say that this increases the need for an independent regulator. It is already too late, as this early phase of the United sale showed.

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