Business Of Sports: Liverpool and United are eternal rivals — even when they’re for sale

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 23, 2023 - January 29, 2023.
Business Of Sports: Liverpool and United are eternal rivals — even when they’re for sale
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You half expected it to be on the agenda in Davos. Liverpool and Manchester United have both been for sale for several weeks and such are the issues raised by prospective buyers — sportswashing, human rights, the American colonisation of the English Premier League (EPL) — that it seemed worthy of discussion at the World Economic Forum. Amid conflicting rumours of high-roller deals and strategic chicanery, the clubs’ eternal rivalry continues.

Liverpool’s Fenway Sports Group (FSG) only want an investor anyway, according to some, and hoped to snare a big one before it can move for United. Their fans accuse United of trying to steal their thunder while United’s rail against the Glazers for being outsmarted yet again.

Not only were Liverpool’s owners faster off the blocks with their “For Sale” notice, they “stole” one of the stars of the World Cup (Cody Gakpo) who had appeared to be heading for Manchester.

How any of this, Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure or even United’s recent ascendancy (after playing second fiddle to Liverpool for years), affects the thinking of the money men is anyone’s guess. After all, it is not something your average hedge fund manager can easily factor in.

The historic feud began when cloth-capped workers paid pennies to watch the two sides battle in late 19th century industrial England. Fast-forward a century and a half from muddy fields to marbled porticos where the movers and sheikhs are from the Gulf and, dare it be said, the “Wolves of Wall Street”.

Each club boasts a global following well over a billion strong, but the potential buyers would fit into an average limo without much of a stretch: sovereign wealth funds, equity companies, a couple of oil-rich mini-nations. Who buys and how much they invest in players will impact the futures of not just the two best supported clubs on the planet but the wider game.

Currently, both are American owned and in the boardroom, at least, they see eye to opportunist eye. They showed their true colours by jointly backing the hated European Super League (ESL) and, before that, Project Big Picture where an elite cabal of clubs would also run the game. Too bad about the rest.

They were only interested in turning a profit, not the greater good of football, and their dream of an American-style closed-shop league with no relegation and guaranteed gravy died in April 2021 when fans rebelled — violently in some cases — against it.

It was people power at its most Luddite and even caused a United-Liverpool game to be postponed. It also caused the EPL’s Big Six to panic and pull out inside 48 hours.

Although three of their former partners in crime, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Juventus, insist the idea still has a pulse, it’s impossible to see how EPL clubs could rejoin it after such an outcry. A ruling by the European Court of Justice is expected to finally kill it off in March anyway.

What FSG and the Glazers still can’t seem to get their heads around is that outside the US, there are no guarantees in sport. And although they increased their chances by buying the two most successful clubs in England, with 39 titles between them, the gravy train of European football is not a given every year. Indeed, in the nine seasons since Sir Alex Ferguson left United, the 

Devils have missed out on the Cham­pions League (UCL) four times.

Qualification has been made even trickier since Saudi money has poured into Newcastle United, turning the Big Six into a Big Seven while the number of UCL places available remains at four.

The other factor that persuaded the pair to sell was the unexpectedly high price paid for Chelsea — a club not comparable with either of the northwest giants in terms of history, stadium capacity or global following. But Todd Boehly’s Clearlake-Capital consortium coughed up £2.5 billion for the Londoners after Roman Abramovich was forced out by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In an uncertain business in an uncertain world, it struck both FSG and the Glazers as a good time to cash in. Both will make a killing on what they initially paid — especially FSG who snapped up a near-bankrupt club for just £300 million in 2010. The Glazers’ leveraged buyout was rather more complicated, but they are hoping for a world record fee for a sporting club, topping the current record of £3.85 billion paid for the Denver Broncos NFL side.

If the reasons for selling are the same, the story of their tenures and financial state of their clubs could hardly be more different. And this may affect the price as much as, if not more than, current league positions.

Where FSG have redeveloped Anfield into a fine stadium with an increased capacity to 60,000 by the start of next season, the Glazers have allowed Old Trafford to rot. Neglect has been such that knocking it down has been a serious consideration. It is a rusting Meccano monolith from another century and whatever is decided, it will be a costly refit.

Ditto the respective training grounds. As Ronaldo noted, United’s Carrington is little different to when he first arrived in 2003, where cabins are sometimes used for changing. In contrast, Liverpool’s AXA Training Centre has state-of-the-art facilities shared by the first team and academy.

According to London’s The Daily Tele­graph, any new United owners would need to spend £1.5 billion (RM7.96 billion) on upgrading a club that is already 

£515 million in debt. It was telling that their transfer window spending has been a £2.8 million loan fee for 30-year-old Wout Weghorst instead of the £37 million (plus add-ons) that Liverpool paid for fellow Dutchman Gakpo.

Even with the small scrum of suitors, there are problems: dual-ownership being one. Saudi Arabia, rightly seen as a certain investor, has already been snared while Qatar Sports Investments, owner of Paris Saint-Germain, is in talks for a share of Tottenham. UEFA’s laws on dual ownership in the same competition are forbidding.

Just as sportswashing is deemed a successful formula by Gulf nations, given the strength of the US dollar and their growing interest in “soccer”, Americans are also eager to invest. With Bill Foley’s recent acquisition of Bournemouth, US owners in the EPL now number 10 — ominously close to the majority of 14 required to change its constitution. Will the EPL allow any more and thereby sign its own death warrant?

Neither FSG nor the Glazers seem prepared to wait and, last Sunday, The Telegraph claimed “a formal bid for Liverpool is expected next month”. That is despite FSG’s perceived preference for a strategic partner. Manager Jurgen Klopp was coy on the matter at a pre-match press conference, but the story sparked a social media frenzy.

It was sadly ironic that it coincided with Saudi Arabia sentencing another cleric to death for using Twitter. Whoever buys Liverpool, it seems the notion of it being a “people’s club” will be even harder to maintain.

Meanwhile, as we went to press, United opened a shop in Davos but deny it is to sell the club. Indeed, such deals are hardly likely to be done over the counter. But what can never be in doubt is that regardless of which club finds the richer customer, this feud shows no sign of abating.

Bob Holmes is a long-time sportswriter specialising in football

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