Nearly a year after Manchester United was put up for sale, the storied English soccer club could still remain in the hands of the Glazer family — much to the dismay of the team’s most fervent supporters.
News that Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani was withdrawing from the bidding process appeared to leave the door open for British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe. However, the owner of petrochemicals giant Ineos is reportedly only looking to buy a minority 25% stake in United, which would leave the Glazers as majority shareholders.
“Someone coming in as a minority partner and propping up the Glazers indefinitely is a nightmare scenario,” Manchester United Supporters Trust spokesperson Chris Rumfitt told The Associated Press. “What the club needs is real change and it needs real investment and we struggle to believe that can happen whilst the Glazers own the majority of the shares permanently. Twenty-five percent for Ratcliffe could be OK, but only if it was the start of a clear path to 51%.”
The Glazers, an American family that also owns the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, announced plans last November to seek new investment and instructed U.S. merchant bank Raine to oversee the process, which included the potential of a full sale.
Raine had previously conducted the sale of Chelsea to Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital for 2.5 billion pounds ($3 billion) plus a commitment of 1.75 billion pounds ($2 billion) of further investment.
While the Glazers were prepared to consider offers for an outright buyout, United said at the time it planned to “explore strategic alternatives,” which always included the possibility of taking on new investment without the owners ceding control.
The late tycoon Malcolm Glazer bought United in 2005 for 790 million pounds (then about $1.4 billion). United supporters have been critical of the leveraged nature of the Glazers’ buyout that loaded debt onto the club, as well as a perceived lack of investment and the dividends taken out by the owners.
The team still had a series of successes on the field. Under the Glazers, United won the Champions League title in 2008, five Premier League titles, one FA Cup, five League Cups and the Europa League.
Ratcliffe, who was born in the Manchester area and has been a United fan since childhood, has long-harbored ambitions to buy the club. Through Ineos, he initially planned to buy out the Glazers’ share of about 69% and spoke of a “modern, progressive, fan-centered approach to ownership.”
He was also focused on helping United win the Champions League for the first time since 2008 and making it the “No. 1 club in the world once again.”
Sheikh Jassim is the chairman of Qatar Islamic Bank and the son of a former Qatari prime minister. He was bidding to take 100% ownership of United, which appealed to fans who are desperate to rid the club of the Glazers.
He also vowed to clear the team’s debt, while investing in the stadium, training center and playing squads in a bid to “return the club to its former glories both on and off the pitch.”
Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim were the only two bidders to publicly declare their intention to take control of United, while other minority investors were also reported.
It was anticipated the process would be concluded in time for the off-season transfer window, which opened in June, after a series of rounds of bidding.
It appeared to be a straight battle between Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim over who would be chosen as the preferred bidder. But as the process dragged on, fans became increasingly impatient and staged protests outside Old Trafford, while chants of “Glazers out” are regularly heard at games at the stadium.
News of Sheikh Jassim’s plans to withdraw came after months of silence and uncertainty around the process, which raised questions about whether the Glazers intended to sell.
On Saturday, the news came that Sheikh Jassim was withdrawing from the process. While the size of his bid was not confirmed, a person with knowledge of his proposal told the AP it was almost double United’s current market valuation of $3.2 billion.
The person spoke on condition of anonymity because of confidentiality restrictions around the process.
While concerns had been raised about Qatar’s human rights record and the potential that United could be used as a “sportswashing” project, fans wanted to see the club compete with the exorbitant spending of Abu Dhabi-backed Manchester City.
Ratcliffe is one of Britain’s richest people and is said to be worth $15.1 billion.
He previously tried to buy Premier League club Chelsea and already owns French club Nice, cycling franchise Team INEOS, is one-third shareholder of the Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One team and competes in the America’s Cup with sailing team INEOS Britannia.
Reports say he would seek to take over soccer operations at United after a sustained period of decline since the retirement of former manager Alex Ferguson. United has not won the Premier League since Ferguson’s last title in 2013.
Over the past decade, the club has been overtaken by City, which won three trophies last season — the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup. Liverpool has also won the Premier League and Champions League in recent years.
United has endured a turbulent period the post-Ferguson era. Erik ten Hag is its fifth permanent manager in that time.
Under Ten Hag, United won the English League Cup last season and secured a return to the Champions League. But the team has struggled this season and is currently in 10th place after losing four of its eight league games. It also faces a fight to advance from the group stage of the Champions League after losing its opening two games.
United will reportedly hold a board meeting on Thursday, but it is not clear if Ratcliffe’s bid will be voted on.